As a U.S. alternate, the gymnast from Baltimore trained in Rio de Janeiro, fulfilling a longtime dream to attend the games. But as an alternate, Whittenburg didn’t achieve his goal of competing.
That’s fueled his training this year — he plans to attend the P&G Gymnastics Championships, which serve as the nationals, Aug. 17-20, to vie for a world championships berth come October — and helped him debut a still rings dismount named after him for its ingenuity and difficulty.
It’s a mark of Whittenburg’s strength and talent, his coach Andriy Stepanchenko said, and one that, for a routine at an international meet in mid-May, left the crowd clamoring similar to the one in Rio.
“He was hungry for gymnastics,” Stepanchenko said. “He was hungry to prove that he’s better than just alternate, and he really wants to earn his spot on the competing team at worlds and next Olympics in Tokyo.”
After returning from the Olympic cycle and post-games gymnastics show tour and unwinding from the Winter Cup Challenge in February, Whittenburg focused on learning the triple back pike — technically called a triple salto backward piked — off the rings.
He had been experimenting with it for about two years, wanting to upgrade his usual dismount — a double-twisting double layout — with an extra twist, but he found the triple pike simpler to execute.
As he gained air awareness with repetition over the foam pit, the 22-year-old aimed to use it at the meet in Slovenia in May.
To have it named after him, Whittenburg needed to be the first to execute it to his feet in an international competition, but he didn’t want to wait until a possible selection to the world championships later this year, when he wouldn’t want to risk a mistake.
So, he performed his usual dismount in the qualification round before attempting to finalize “The Whittenburg” during event finals.
He was anxious.
Representatives from the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) were watching as witnesses to add the skill to the code of points. They decided in before the meet that the Whittenburg would be valued as an H, the hardest rating on a scale that starts at A.
His competitors were loud, too. They, along with the crowd, knew his dismount was coming.
Plus, Eddie Penev, Whittenburg’s U.S. teammate and roommate at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., broadcast the routine on Instagram Live. Penev found a WiFi hotspot because the skill was too “ridiculous” not to share. He soon had about 500 viewers.
“If anybody else was going to try it, they’d have to be totally nuts,” Penev said. “But with Donnell, I just know he’s a tank. There’s not really another way to put it. I had no doubts he was going to be able to pull it off.”
Whittenburg, the 2015 and 2016 national champion on rings, said he had a few miscues, trying to conserve energy.
But when he approached the finish, the crowd grew louder, and he tried to harness the enthusiasm.
“Being kind of scared and nervous for that skill makes you better,” Whittenburg said. “It makes you more alert and more focused.”
He had rarely practiced the skill after a full routine on a hard landing — international rules don’t allow gymnasts to use softer landing mats on rings — because of its high injury risk.
When Whittenburg attempted one in competition, he felt his foot slip.
“All right, I don’t care how many steps I take,” he thought. “I just need to land it.”
He did, and the FIG declared the Whittenburg official in early June.
But his work this summer isn’t finished.
Stepanchenko doesn’t expect Whittenburg will use the dismount in competition very often. The danger and need to show consistent sets means Whittenburg might attempt it during only one of the two national championship competition days.
Whittenburg agrees with the plan because his aspirations extend beyond one skill. He wants to hear fans roar for his performances at the world championships and progress toward experiencing the 2020 Olympics from the competition floor.
“That’s the goal,” Whittenburg said, “and that’s the plan.”