Penn AC Athlete Spotlight: Justin Keen

by: Paul Coomes


Penn AC Athlete Spotlight:

Justin Keen


Justin Keen (instagram)Hometown: Hatfield, PA

Q1: How did you discover rowing?

A: I initially tried the crew team at Penn State because I wanted to get in better shape for the Ultimate Frisbee team… 2 weeks later I quit the ultimate team, and the rest is history.

Q2: What made you want to row?

A: I stumbled through a few sports growing up, mainly soccer and lacrosse, put a lot of time in but could never get past the “C” or “B” teams. I joined the winter track team my junior year of high school to get in better shape for lacrosse, and really enjoyed the training environment and team culture. After another mediocre season of barely playing on the JV team, I decided to run all 3 seasons my senior year. I wasn’t very good at track either (~2:10 for 800m), but my high school had one of the top 4×800 teams in the country at that time, and there was something addicting about how those guys trained and carried themselves. When I happened across the crew team at Penn State, I think the similarity in culture engaged me, plus it was a sport I was naturally built for.

Q3: What is your favorite thing about rowing?

A: I believe that happiness in life comes the contrast of struggle and relief, which is epitomized by the sport of rowing. It demands a one-of-a-kind blend of physical, mental, and emotional/spiritual resiliency, and there are an endless number of ways to improve, variables in the formula of success to constantly tweak. Just when you think you can’t handle any more, you have a technical breakthrough or a beautiful race, and suddenly you know it was all worthwhile.

Q4: Share a favorite memory.

A: One of my favorite memories has to be the Halloween party in 2016, when the Gold Cup Challenge athletes first attended. Erik and I had just beaten Mahe Drysdale in the HOCR 2x the week before, and we shamelessly took a picture with him on the Penn AC deck, after all 3 of us had more than a few beers. Unfortunately this is also one of my biggest regrets, as the picture was taken on Mahe’s phone and we never got it from him…

Q5: Why train at Penn AC?

A: I originally came to Penn AC in 2010 after Dad Vail, for a meeting about the summer program. A few prior Penn State athletes had rowed at Penn AC and highly recommended. Two old school coaches towered over the group of college kids sitting on the Nash Room floor, talking about the trophies and pictures on the wall, about what it meant to be a Penn AC athlete. Ultimately I wasn’t good enough to join the group that year, and I rowed a 1x out of Bachelor’s instead. When I returned to Philly in 2012, I joined the summer group with a 6:23 2k score, determined to earn a spot on the year-round team. I proceeded to drop a few seconds every year, until I went 5:56 in 2016.
Penn AC is the blue collar club of BH row- the facilities aren’t glamorous, but it offers more than enough for a determined athlete to succeed. The club carriers 3 junior teams and a number of master’s rowers, but the shared priority has always been on developing elite athletes. Historically known for the 4-, Penn AC struggled to adapt in the 2000s after the sweep camp came to prominence, and by 2015 there were only 4-5 athletes left. However Coach Sean Hall arrived in late 2015, reoriented the club toward the M4X, and has been building the program back up ever since. Together we have cultivated a culture of excellence without fear, where athletes are constantly pushing each other to new heights but aren’t afraid to fail and learn. Fueled by confidence rather than ego, the group has quickly risen to the top of US sculling, and is on track to contend for a 2020 Olympic Qualification spot.

Q6: Typical training day at Penn AC?

A: Ready to launch at 7, head to the office by 10. Work for a few hours as an actuary, pricing life insurance. Back to the boathouse by 5:30, home by 8. I’ve been doing more or less the same routine in the same city for 6 years. It’s kind of like the “Edge of Tomorrow”- every day you have to start over, but you hope to make it a little farther than the last time.

Q7: Rowing background/accomplishments


  • Penn State Crew Team (2008-2012, also served as webmaster, equipment master, and president)
  • Penn AC (2012-Present, served as Secretary and now Captain)


  • 1st in M2- at 2010 Murphy Cup
  • 1st in 1x, 4+, 8+, and 8+ dash at 2011 West Virginia Governor’s Cup
  • 1st in MV4+ at 2012 Knecht Cup
  • 1st in 2x at 2015 Elite Nationals
  • 1st in Prince of Wales 4x at 2016 Henley
  • 1st in Champ 2x at 2016 HOCR
  • 1st in 1x at 2016 Fall Speed Order
  • 11th in 4x at 2017 World Cup III
  • 1st in 2x at 2017 HOCR
  • 1st in 2x at 2018 NSR 2
  • 9th in 4x at 2018 World Cup II
  • 11th in 4x at 2018 World Championships
  • 2nd in 2018 Lotman Challenge

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