Donnell Whittenburg, chasing an Olympic spot, third at nationals

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TAMPA — Donnell Whittenburg had planned to be done with gymnastics now. He thought so last year, and it didn’t matter that he got a spot on the Olympic team. His career would probably end after the world championships fall. At least that’s what he said.

Yet here he is a year later, on his 28th birthday, still competing and pursuing his Olympic goal. In the U.S. Nationals field that includes three returning Olympians, the Baltimore native attempts to justify his membership in U.S. teams at major international competitions. And if you ask him now, Whittenburg won’t speculate on an end date for his elite senior career that began nearly a decade ago.

“I always feel like I’m missing something,” said Whittenburg, a four-time world championship team member but never more than an alternate for the Olympiques. “And that’s literally the only thing. I did pretty much everything you could do in this sport, except go to the Olympics.

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After the first of two nights of competition at the US Championships at Amalie Arena, Whittenburg is in third place with a total of 84.774 — well behind all-around leader Brody Malone of Stanford (88.942). Malone, a Tokyo Olympian and the defending national champion, has a comfortable lead over 18-year-old rising star Asher Hong, who is in second at 85.480, but Whittenburg managed to stay ahead of Olympians Shane Wiskus (84.423 ) and Yul Moldauer (84.276) in the standings.

They’re all watching the world championship team – and the Paris Games just two years away – and Whittenburg delivered performances on vault and rings that put him squarely in the game.

When asked if he could strengthen an American team on this stage, Whittenburg said after Thursday’s competition: “Absolutely. No doubt in my mind. We need rings and we need a safe. These are my events.

Two falls to the floor dropped Whittenburg’s total, but he had the best ring score (15.422). He also featured one of the toughest jumps in the world, a rounded entry onto the table then, after propelling the craft with his hands, two flips with a full twist.

In addition to crowning national champions, this competition also determines which athletes advance to the World Championships selection camp. The all-around winner automatically earns a spot on the World Championship team, as does the second-place finisher as long as they place in the top three on two apparatus. The rest of the five-man squad will carry the camp’s name, and the world championships in October provide the opportunity for the U.S. men’s team to return to the medal podium for the first time since 2014, including with the absence of Russia due to the invasion of Ukraine.

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Best team score scenarios are taken into account when building a World Team, using scores from National Championships and Selection Camp, so a high all-around score is not the single determining factor for a gymnast with the strengths of Whittenburg. A key for him is showing that his best events – vault, floor and rings – could help the team in a final, in which three athletes compete on each apparatus. He excelled in two of those events on Thursday, but struggled on the ground.

The Americans have fallen behind the best teams in the world because their routines don’t have the difficulty of the best teams. With scores calculated by combining Difficulty and Execution ratings, easier routines cap a gymnast’s maximum total. To improve the difficulty, the US program instituted an aggressive bonus system this year that rewards the most difficult routines with extra points.

For Whittenburg, this system means a massive boost in jumping, which was his last apparatus of the evening on Thursday. He was in 12th place at the start of the rotation, but pulled ahead after his first vault scored 16.380, including 1.780 as a bonus – a huge improvement in a sport in which a fall takes away a point and gymnasts are often separated by tenths. (Gymnasts vying for vault medals must perform two different vaults, and scores are averaged, but for those who have done so at nationals, only first attempts count towards the all-around score. In team competitions, gymnasts perform only one vault.) With a difficulty score of 6.0 on the rings, Whittenburg earned an additional .522 bonus for taking the lead in this apparatus.

“At the end of the day, we’re not going to use [the bonus system] internationally, so it doesn’t really matter,” Whittenburg said of the initiative in place at domestic competitions. “Yeah, it helps me here, but I’m just trying to get out there, to compete internationally because I know I can score big there, just as well as here.”

Hong, the young standout with strengths similar to Whittenburg’s, performed the same difficult first jump and edged the veteran with a 16.630 – then he added a more difficult second jump than Whittenburg’s. Hong had low scores on pommel horse and high bar but received a huge boost in her best events.

Competing in her first national championships as a top gymnast, Hong said, “I have a good experience in international competitions, so I’m not too nervous anymore.

Whittenburg, who trains in Wisconsin, has appeared at the world championships four times, placing third in 2014 with the team in its debut on that stage. He returned to the world championships the following year and won another bronze medal, this time on vault. Whittenburg represented the United States again in 2017 and 2021, but those two editions of the event did not include team competition, as is the norm for world championships following the Olympics. He didn’t win any medals, but he still has those two others. An Olympic berth is the missing piece.

“As long as I’m healthy and have the will to continue,” he said, “why not?”


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