Geena Denny has heard the occasional insensitive comment about her adoption over the years.
“Mostly when I was younger a few people said, ‘They aren’t your real parents,’” Denny said. “I’d look at them and say, ‘Yes they are real. They aren’t ghosts.’ My mom always said, when I get sad just turn it into a joke.”
The rare misguided statement from a child aside, life has been happy in Andover for Denny, who was adopted from China when she was six months old.
Tomorrow, the Andover High senior will be at Harvard University to cheer on her Golden Warrior swim team, which will go for its 13th Division 1 state title in the last 14 years.
“I’d say she is a perfectly normal 17-year-old girl,” said her father, Patrick Denny. “We go through the same problems as any family. We experience the same joys and jubilations. We have not run into problems that other families do not.”
Born in the Chinese province of Jiangxi, Denny was put up for adoption when she was two days old.
“I don’t know why,” said Denny. “I looked up the town I was born in, and it is a very poor place (lowest wages in China). So there is a good chance they could not afford to take care of me. China also has the one-child policy, so they often keep boys. But the area I am from is very poor, so I think that is probably why they gave me up.”
Denny spend the first six months of her life in an orphanage, where she had to share a crib with another baby.
“My crib mate and I actually still send Christmas cards to each other every year,” said Denny.
Meanwhile, Patrick and Pam Denny were looking to add to their family.
“We felt like adoption was a good way to start a family,” said Patrick, whose wife was familiar with Asian culture due to frequent business trips to Japan.
“So we began looking into programs. And I will tell you it is the best decision we have ever made.”
After the Denny family had gone through an extensive examination, six-month-old Geena was placed with her new family, then living in Rochester, N.Y. When Geena was 4-years-old, they moved to Andover.
“You just get randomly assigned a family, and I lucked out with a great one,” said Geena. “As soon as I could understand they told me I was adopted. They really had to tell me since they are both blond with curly hair. I think it is much easier I knew early. It would have been tough to find out later.”
Once Geena entered school, the Denny family was very open about their family construction.
“When I was young my mother would come into my class and talk about adoption,” said Geena. “She probably did it every year through third grade. We never hid it.”
But while the Denny family worked to educate, the occasional question was still asked.
“Sometimes kids wouldn’t understand why I didn’t look like my parents,” she said.
“It was a little strange to meet coaches because at first they couldn’t make the connection. People will still say, ‘I know someone who was adopted.’ I tell them, ‘It’s OK, you don’t have to seem relatable.’
“I remember once I got in a fight with a girl who said,
‘At least I wasn’t abandoned at birth.’ That was sad. But, for the most part, when people ask it doesn’t really bother me. Being adopted isn’t something that I think about. My friends don’t see me as any different. Once you get into high school no one really stands out.”
By the time she was in kindergarten, Denny also developed a love for swimming. But at the start she wasn’t racing.
“I did synchronized swimming from kindergarten to fifth grade,” she said. “But the travel became too much and I just got tired of it. I had a friend who was doing swimming, so in the sixth grade I started doing that.
“I was nervous about trying out for the (Andover High) team because some of these girls had been competing their whole lives. But that was the most stressful part. It has been great being on the team.”
Her best meets as a Golden Warrior came this season against Notre Dame and North Andover, where she scored wins in the 500 freestyle and 200 medley relay.
While she will not be competing on Sunday, she is excited to be at the school as a member of the powerhouse team.
“I am super excited,” she said.
“This is what we have been working for. We want another title. I won’t be swimming, but I will have as much fun cheering.”
And while she has not yet chosen a college, Denny hopes to visit one destination close to her heart.
“I want to go back to China and maybe visit the orphanage I lived in,” she said.
“I went to China once in the fifth grade, but did not have a chance to go back to my orphanage. I want to study abroad in college, so maybe I will study in China.”