ST. LOUIS — Donnell Whittenburg can see the end. It’s lurking out there somewhere. Probably this fall, whether he finds his way onto the U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics team or not.
Seven years have come and gone in a flash. Whittenburg turns 27 in August. Hardly ancient, but the sport’s physical and mental demands have taken their toll.
Even in the final months of an enigmatic career, Whittenburg remains a bit of a puzzle. Built like an NFL middle linebacker — albeit one who stands just 5-feet-4 — Whittenburg has struggled to deliver on the promise he showed during his first years on the U.S. national team, when he helped the Americans win bronze at the 2014 world championships and followed it up with an individual bronze on vault a year later.
Those remain his only medals in major international competition. The Baltimore native was an alternate on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team and hasn’t been back to a world championship since 2017.
Yet there remain flashes of what might have been and perhaps still could be.
Whittenburg, when he’s healthy and fully engaged, remains one of the most powerful vaulters on the planet. He showcased it on the opening night of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials on Thursday, making his way onto “SportsCenter’s” Top 10 by soaring through the air with a full-twisting double-back flip first done in competition by North Korea’s Ri Se Gwang.
The judges rewarded Whittenburg with a 15.05, one of two routines in any event that night to crack the 15.0 barrier. Yet four of Whittenburg’s other five rotations were nowhere near his best. While he remains a force on still rings — an event that caters to his combination of strength and control — he finished outside the top 10 on parallel bars, high bar, floor and pommel horse.
With Brody Malone, Sam Mikulak, Shane Wiskus and Yul Moldauer in position to grab the four spots on the U.S. Olympic team, Whittenburg’s only chance at getting to Tokyo is if he finds his way to the plus-one spot the Americans earned at the Pan American Championships in Brazil earlier this month, a meet Whittenburg watched from the stands as an alternate.
The “plus one” will compete in Japan as an individual. U.S. men’s high-performance director Brett McClure says the decision on who gets it will depend entirely on medal potential at the Games. Whittenburg’s first vault score would likely put him in the mix, but the selection committee will have options. Alec Yoder was brilliant on pommel horse. Alex Diab was steady on rings.
Whittenburg knows all of this, which is why he’s trying to stay in the moment. In what might be his final chance in the spotlight, he spent the warm-up trying to hype up as many of his fellow competitors as possible.
“It’s this Olympic trials, like we’re all boys here,” Whittenburg said. “I just trying to show as much love as possible because you know, we’ve been to battle with these guys for so long and you know there’s new guys coming up too. So I feel like for me and my place, kind of being one of the vets here, is that like I just want everybody to feel comfortable and feel welcome. So that’s kind of why I do that.”
Whittenburg didn’t have such a positive attitude during his final years at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado. He spent the better part of a decade there but left in 2019 after failing to make the world championship team. He found the atmosphere suffocating.
“I just felt like kind of a child being on campus and having to go by rules and stuff like that and having all the attention on me,” he said.
He moved on to a new gym in Wisconsin, training alongside Marvin Kimble, who retired this spring. A hand injury limited Whittenburg early in the year, but he has pressed on. If he can put together two solid vaults in Saturday night’s finals, he’ll make a compelling case to the selection committee. After his long and complicated journey, he’ll take it.
“I already know exactly where I stack up. It’s just a matter of doing exactly what I need to do when I’m out on the floor,” he said. “I know that I can compete with the best specialists in the world. If I just do my job then I feel like the rest will take care of itself.”