By Matt Schnabel, The Baltimore Sun
6:16 PM EST, February 19, 2014
Donnell Whittenburg isn't quite sure when his gymnastics career began, years before the medals, the tryouts and traveling across the country, but he can remember where it all started: the backyard of his childhood Baltimore home.
The 19-year-old U.S. men's national team member, who will compete on Thursday in the preliminary rounds of the Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas, recalls performing handstands and other stunts outside his house, a practice his mother, Sheila Brown, didn't take to fondly.
"She was kind of annoyed by it," Whittenburg said, laughing. "So she just tried to find places for me to get all of that energy out."
At age 5, Brown enrolled him in youth gymnastics classes, and he joined his first team, Timonium-based Rebounders Gymnastics, two years later.
Whittenburg's first taste of national competition came in the 2006 Junior Olympics in Oklahoma City. He placed fourth in vault, an unanticipated finish for the then-11-year-old.
"It was actually really great," Whittenburg said. "I didn't expect anything coming out of that competition. I was just going there to get as much experience as I could."
Despite coming away with a medal in his national debut, Whittenburg said he didn't take the sport too seriously.
"I wasn't really still worried about anything," he said. "I was like, 'Oh, this is really fun. I want to do it again.' Each year I just tried to work a little bit harder so I could try to win more events or even all-around."
The medals began piling up. At the 2008 Junior Olympics, Whittenburg finished second in vault, and the following year he placed fourth again.
Whittenburg points to the 2010 Junior Olympics as a turning point in his career. An eighth-place all-around finish — his first all-around medal — cemented his belief that he could compete with the nation's best.
"I was finally starting to see the potential in myself, like … 'I'm right up there with the top athletes,'" the Edgewood alumnus said. "So I was feeling very confident that I could do better."
The event also provided the backdrop for Whittenburg's first encounter with men's national team coach Vitaly Marinitch, who attended the event in the hopes of recruiting gymnasts to train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"What we have here at the Olympic Training Center, I thought it would be a great opportunity for him to try out," Marinitch said. "He is a great talent, and I felt like we would help him get on the junior national team as quickly as possible and possibly … a future Olympic team."
Success at the Junior Olympics aside, Whittenburg decided to remain with longtime coach Abdul Mammeri, who had coached him at several clubs since his days with Rebounders Gymnastics, rather than make the move to Colorado.
Whittenburg continued to coast, qualifying for the 2010 Visa Gymnastics Championships and picking up medals in vault, horizontal bars and still rings. In 2012, he finished first all-around at both the Junior Olympics and Visa Championships, winning a combined 11 medals.
The 2012 Edgewood alumnus concedes that the constant training and traveling took its toll on his high school experience, but he maintains that pursuing his goals in gymnastics outweighed missing out on extracurricular activities.
"There were a whole bunch of activities, but I couldn't participate because of gymnastics," he said. "I mean, it was worth it in the end."
Upon graduating from high school, Whittenburg attended community college, but struggled to pay tuition, ultimately sparking his decision to move in May to Colorado and the Olympic Training Center, which offered him free online education through DeVry University.
Though his family remained in Baltimore, Whittenburg said he keeps in contact and visits when he is able.
"It was a big change, but I know they were supporting me the whole way," he said. "It's not really that bad."
Whittenburg was named to the 2013-14 men's senior national team in August after a three-medal performance at the P&G Gymnastics Championships, coming off a second-place all-around finish at the national qualifier.
Whittenburg will begin competition Thursday at the Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas, where he hopes to qualify for the 2014-15 senior national team. Though he placed sixth in vault and seventh in still rings at last year's event, he fell short of making the team.
"I've definitely been upgrading rings a lot," Whittenburg said. "Vault hasn't really changed … But pretty much all the other events, they're getting stronger."
Whittenburg has suffered heel bruises leading up to the Winter Cup Challenge, and Marinitch said he doesn't think Whittenburg will "be at 100 percent" in time for the competition. Nonetheless, he expects Whittenburg will deliver a performance at least comparable to last year's.
Though Marinitch said the 2016 Olympics remain distant in his team's minds, he believes Whittenburg has the potential to contend among the world's top gymnasts.
"Donnell has a lot of potential, obviously, as a gymnast to fulfill his dream … to help the U.S. Olympic team win a medal at the Olympic Games," Marinitch said. "I think that's everybody's dream right now."
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