Between his eighth-grade and freshman years, Spencer Keenan loved contact sports.
The Kenilworth resident — bound for New Trier at the time, in 2013 — had a thing for football, lacrosse, wrestling.
He also owned pragmatism, as he browsed around at a sports/ club/activities fair for incoming freshmen.
“I was pretty small [5-foot-6, 110 pounds],” the 2017 New Trier graduate recalls. “I knew, if I had tried out for sports like that, I would not have made any of those teams.”
The New Trier Sailing booth caught his eye. The sport, he would learn, competed in the fall and spring seasons. Keenan had dipped his toe in that activity in the sixth grade, with other Kenilworth Sailing Club summer campers.
“Fooling around on a Sunfish,” he says.
Sailing turned a tad more serious for Keenan at Sheridan Shore Sailing School in Wilmette, where he learned to navigate 420s near Gillson Park in ensuing summers.
“But I had no idea what to expect during New Trier tryouts,” he says.
Five freshmen made the New Trier JV team in the fall of 2013.
Keenan was one of them.
“Second day of tryouts, I was sailing [on Lake Michigan] with a kid on a pretty windy day,” he recounts. “I was scared, but I was also having the time of my life. I wasn’t the skipper; I was crew then. I realized then how much I loved being on the water, how much I loved making a boat go faster.
“I’m a speed junkie.”
And a two-time state team champion (2016 and 2017). The former diminutive fair goer is a 6-0, 160-pounder today, pumped to join the sailing club at Santa Clara University in the fall.
“Spencer is a real athlete, one of the most coachable athletes I’ve been around, with great potential,” says Isaac Clark, who started coaching sailors at New Trier in 2016 and serves as head coach at Chicago Yacht Club, NT’s home base. “He is open to advice or criticism or commentary. Spencer keeps it simple; never overcomplicates things. Say there is little wind, and he’s sailing. All he thinks about is finding where there is more wind on a course.
“He’s calm,” the coach adds. “Yet he also takes things very seriously in this sport. Spencer believes every opportunity to sail is also an opportunity to become a better sailor.”
Summer is THE prime season to sail competitively, and Keenan — a summer instructor for kids and adults at the Kenilworth Sailing Club — has hit the water hard here and off the shorelines of other states since Graduation Day. In June he completed the National Offshore One Design (NOOD) regatta hosted by Chicago Yacht Club, a three-day event and part of the largest national sailboat race circuit in the U.S. Keenan raced with four other recent high school graduates, placing 12th in a field of 20. Many of the entrants were either pro or semi-pro sailors.
Also in June, Keenan traveled to Texas to compete as a team member at the U.S. Youth Match Racing National Championships (Rose Cup) — think little sibling of America’s Cup.
Last August, he and crew mates went up against boats skippered by sailors from all over, including ones hailing from Malaysia and Australia, at a Grand Slam event hosted by Chicago Yacht Club. Keenan intends to make another Grand Slam appearance later this month.
“Sailing has taken over my life,” says Keenan, a probable economics major at Santa Clara. “I’m looking forward to being a part of the program at Santa Clara, because it practices with Stanford, one of the best teams in the country. Sailors … they’re laid-back people — until they race against you. Racers are intense and focused; they have to be. The sport of sailing has helped me become more focused in general. And it’s helped me socially, because I get to interact with sailors all over the country.
“My parents [Patrick and Jennifer] love that I sail as much as I do. It gives them an excuse to travel with me out of state.”
Keenan’s younger but taller brother, 6-foot-3 Quinn, will be a junior at New Trier in the fall. He’s another avid sailor in the Keenan family — thanks to a certain sib who knows a thing or two about a jib.
Quinn represented NT on water the past two school years and teamed up with Spencer this past spring at an invitational regatta near Annapolis, Maryland.
“I had never sailed heading into my freshman year, and I was all set to play football and lacrosse,” Quinn says. “I went out sailing with Spencer, who taught me what I needed to know. He did a good job teaching me, and I fell in love with sailing.
“My brother is my big competition, my main motivation. I try to do everything double what he did.”
Their father wrestled at the prep level in New York, helping a squad win a state championship, Spencer notes. The brothers have grappled against each other several times in their basement.
“We’ve broken tons of stuff while wrestling,” Quinn says. “My brother hates to lose. In anything. He was a very good competitor and a very good leader on our sailing teams. Teammates knew he was very knowledgeable in the boat. JV, freshman and sophomore sailors — they admired him and his leadership. Their goal was to be like him.”
Spencer Keenan would like nothing more than to see Santa Clara University’s co-ed sailing club graduate to varsity status before he sets sail on his post-college life. The SCU program, Keenan says, typically draws 30 student-athletes each year, with about half of them taking the commitment seriously.
“Spencer,” NT coach Clark says, “will do whatever he can to elevate the program at Santa Clara. He gets frustrated, yes, if he doesn’t do what he expects from himself in sailing. But he has the mindset you want in an athlete. Spencer, super focused and always willing to put in the time, continues to look forward to the next race, the next opportunity to compete.
“I know this: Spencer won’t stop sailing after college.”