During the second day of the United States gymnastics championships in Kansas City, Missouri, Donnell Whittenburg finished third in the rings for the bronze medal. But taking home his first medal from the national meet in two years seemed a distant proposition early in his program.
“I don’t even know how I got through that routine,” the 25-year-old Baltimore native said Thursday. “As soon as I did my first skill, my whole midsection just started cramping up bad. So I pretty much had to finish the whole routine cramping. Every time I piked, cramp. Every time I just moved, cramp. So that one took a lot of mental toughness because I could have just stopped.”
Asked how he pushed through, Whittenburg said: “It’s just determination to pretty much get what I need to do to be on the [national] team. If you really want something, it doesn’t matter what you’re going through because you’re going to do it. You’re just going to try to do it as best as you can.”
That mindset combined with that third-place finish in the rings contributed to Whittenburg placing seventh all-around at the U.S. championships Aug. 10. Later that night, he was informed by national team officials that he had indeed qualified for the national team and would be invited to the world selection camp for a shot to participate in the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships Oct. 4-13 in Stuttgart, Germany.
Rejoining the national team for the first time since 2017 was Whittenburg’s top priority before the U.S. meet.
“It just kind of shows myself that I’m still in the game and shows everyone that even though I was injured for a little bit, don’t ever count me out,” he said. “That was kind of my mentality after that competition.”
NBC Sports analyst Tim Daggett said Whittenburg, an alternate on the 2016 Olympic team that competed in Rio de Janeiro, could make an American squad even stronger at the world championships and 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“He has all the ingredients that are needed to be a contributor,” said Daggett, who helped the 1984 team win the Olympic gold medal and captured the bronze in the pommel horse. “He’s one of the most powerful guys anywhere — U.S., world. So he has the capability to contribute in a lot of ways — still rings, floor exercise, vaulting and parallel bars. He is potentially just as good as anybody.”
Whittenburg’s return to the national team has been an exercise in patience. He underwent major shoulder surgery in November 2017 and estimated his shoulder is only at 80% health. Andriy Stepanchenko, head coach at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said Whittenburg overcame a knee injury earlier this year, and Whittenburg underwent an MRI on Thursday because elbow pain has plagued him for the past year.
Just completing the two-day competition at the U.S. championships was a personal victory for Whittenburg.
“That was kind of my main goal for that competition since I haven’t been doing all-around for two years,” he said. “So that was always pretty good to accomplish.”
Whittenburg’s seventh-place showing in the all-round competition was offset by disappointing finishes in the parallel bars (11th), the pommel horse (14th) and the horizontal bar (16th).
Stepanchenko rattled off a list of areas for Whittenburg to address. He wants Whittenburg to bring full difficulty back to his floor routines, return the Tsukahara flip to the vault that helped him collect a bronze medal in the event at the 2015 world championships in Glasgow, Scotland, and add consistency to his releases on the horizontal bar.
But Stepanchenko pointed out injuries will impact those skills and more.
“Four events for the men’s all-around competition are upper-body strength skills, and if your shoulder or wrist or elbow is injured, then you’re kind of very limited in how you train and compete,” he said. “So he health-wise is not at 100% right now, and we’re dealing with that every day and trying to improve that.”
Whittenburg tried to downplay his ailments, noting many gymnasts grit their way through injuries. But world selection camp begins Sept. 5, which does not offer him much time to heal.
“There’s not really much down time, and that’s always a concern for me,” he said. “You have to try to find ways to make sure that you’re ready and healthy enough to be at your top performance that day. After that, you try to go get as much recovery as possible and make sure that your body is feeling good so that you can go from there.”
Daggett said Whittenburg flashed glimpses of the form last weekend that helped him collect 11 medals — including two golds each in the rings and vault — at the U.S. championships from 2014 to 2017.
“He’s very close to being all the way back on rings,” Daggett said. “He got really rough on parallel bars, which can help the U.S. I think his second-day floor routine would play well anywhere for any country at the world championships.
"The thing that the U.S. at this point is weak on is vaulting, and he’s not all the way back there. If he gets back to where he was — I mean, he won a medal in vaulting, and if he can get back to that level, then that event alone will really help his chances tremendously to make both the world team and the Olympics in 2020.”
Stepanchenko said even if Whittenburg misses a chance to compete at the world championships, there’s the Winter Cup Challenge from Feb. 18-22 in Las Vegas that could help him earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
“The next eight, nine months will be critical to stay healthy and stay in training,” he said. “I think the goal to make the Olympic team is very realistic.”
Whittenburg is pragmatic enough to know that a similar outing at the U.S. championships is not enough to propel him to the Olympics.
“I feel like for me, I have to do so much more just to get back to the way I need to be because at that competition, I didn’t do all of my hardest skills that I would be doing at the Olympic games,” he said. “So for me, that competition was to do pretty difficult routines, but also not too hard where you’re just going to be struggling the whole time, because the main goal was to get on the national team.”