METUCHEN, N.J. — Every dive into the pool is a victory for Michael McQuay.
Each breaststroke. Each backstroke. Each freestyle relay.
They all boldly defy the grim prognosis that doctors delivered to McQuay’s parents nearly 15 years ago. Autism would prevent McQuay from ever walking, they said. He would never talk or be able to perform the most basic of tasks.
“And now,” said Michael’s mother, Maria, “look at him.”
Michael, 21, has won so many medals while swimming competitively over the last several years that he has lost count. He has stood on podiums at local and state Special Olympics competitions and collected enough golds, silvers and bronzes to make even Michael Phelps envious.
“Our kids matter, man,” said Michael’s father, Mike, a 53-year-old bundle of energy who owns a construction company and also coaches the Jersey Hammerheads — a competitive swim team he started with his wife in 2013 and is made up of teenagers on the autism spectrum in Middlesex County, New Jersey. The squad of about 13 youngsters practices twice a week at the local YMCA.
“I mean, they have a gift,” McQuay added. “Give them an opportunity, you believe any kid can do something. I think that’s my message, that they need an opportunity. You have to believe in your child.”
Michael and his Jersey Hammerheads teammates are the subject of an inspiring documentary called “Swim Team,” directed by Short Hills-based Lara Stolman.
The film chronicles the daily struggles and triumphs that families such as the McQuays have experienced while seeking a sense of inclusion despite differences, the athletes finding companionship with Olympic-sized pools serving as the backdrop.
“I think the film is about not giving up on people with autism and developmental disabilities and being open-minded about people who are different,” Stolman said. “I hope this film opens people’s eyes in that way because everyone deserves a chance. Every child deserves a chance to be on a team and to be included.”
The independently produced “Swim Team” has won several awards around the country and will screen at 5:15 p.m. Sunday and 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The film was also recently acquired by PBS’ non-fiction showcase “POV” and will make its national television debut in October.
“Never in a million years did I think people would have embraced it the way they have been,” said 51-year-old Maria McQuay, the supervisor for the Domestic Violence Unit in Middlesex County. “When Lara came to me and said she wanted to do this, I said, ‘You have to promise me: Once this film gets going, it has to be inspirational. When that one new parent gets the diagnosis of their child, if it’s autism, Down syndrome or whatever the disability is, when they see this, it gives them hope for their child.'”
Michael epitomizes that very message.
He competes with the Scarlet of Rutgers aquatic squad and still swims with the Hammerheads, training while also helping his parents with the team.
“It’s really great,” Michael said, “and I enjoy helping the others who are like me, of course.”
Things are looking good for Michael outside the pool, too. He’s in his third summer working at the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange. Oh, and he also recently got his first girlfriend.
“I would love to see my son get married and I would love to see him drive,” Mike McQuay said. “I don’t know if it’ll ever happen, but you know what, we never say no in our house. When you say no and you start giving up, then it’s over. You can’t put your kid in a corner.”
That message is splashed all over the film. While Michael is the only remaining member of the team who’s highlighted in the documentary, a new group of athletes is getting coached by Mike.
“He’s almost like a drill sergeant,” Michael said with a smile. “Well, for example, when you see the 1980s movie ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ you’ll see what I mean.”
He’s not the foul-mouthed taskmaster made famous by R. Lee Ermey’s performance, but Mike pushes his swimmers to succeed. He barks out instructions with the intensity of an NFL coach and balances it with a compassion that makes him lovable.
That combination inspired Stolman to make the film when she met the McQuays in 2013 while looking for swim lessons for her own autistic son.
“Coach Mike was the quintessential coach, this great character, and he had such high expectations for the team,” said Stolman, who began filming in 2014. “He was talking about how they were going to dominate the competition. Nobody talks about kids with autism like that and nobody talks about kids with special needs like that.
“I thought, ‘These are really special people, and I want to see how this turns out.’ “
Seeing their son and his teammates grow as athletes and people has been the experience of a lifetime for the McQuays. The road, however, has been far from easy.
Mike recalled sitting in an Individualized Education Program meeting when his son was in second grade. Never bashful, McQuay asked the teachers what they wanted their children to be when they grow up.
Seeing their confused looks, McQuay delivered his impassioned message.
“I said, ‘Listen, all I want my son to do is tell me, “Dad, I love you,” and to know what it means,’ ” McQuay said while fighting back tears. “Well, in 2014, Mikey won gold and afterward, he walked over and hugged me and said, ‘Dad, guess what? I know what it means now.’ That was a big moment because he knew. I mean, he saw my face and saw his mother’s face, and said, ‘I know what it means now.’ I’ve done a lot of good things with a lot of good kids, but for that there to be said, man, that’s up there and that was my own kid doing that.
“We always tell our kids that we love you and they say they love you back, but that’s when he told me he knew what it means.”
The ultimate triumph for a family — and team — that earns big victories together every day.
“It’s incredible,” Maria McQuay said. “Great things are happening for him and for us. We are truly blessed.”
Dennis Waszak Jr., Associated Press