Donnell Whittenburg rocked back and forth on his feet, his eyes boring into the vault table yards ahead of him as he waited behind the start line.
It was Aug. 24, Day 2 of the 2014 P&G Gymnastics Championships at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, and the 20-year-old U.S. men's national team member was playing catch-up after finishing sixth two nights earlier.
So Whittenburg, a Baltimore native who will be competing in the world championships starting Friday in Nanning, China, knew he had to nail a rare vault sequence — so dangerous that it was once thought to be impossible — if he wanted to medal. Only one other gymnast, Ri Se Gwang of North Korea, has accomplished the move, which is named for him. The pressure was on.
Palms dusted in chalk, Whittenburg knew he had only a few seconds to judge how fast he needed to run.
If he's too fast, he can mess up the entire vault routine or get hurt. Too slow, and he won't get enough momentum to finish.
At the signal, Whittenburg sprinted down the mat, bounced off the springboard with a split-second handstand and launched himself.
He was a human blur — one, two, three flips with a full twist and half turn — then his feet smacked onto the mat with resounding thumps, and he pumped his fist into the air.
He did it. He became the second person in the world to perform the sequence perfectly.
“It just feels easy, coming off the vault table,” said Whittenburg, who eventually won gold in the vault and finished fourth overall in Pittsburgh. He was the only non-Olympian with a top-five finish.
It's a sign of the sacrifice and work he's put into the sport in the past year.
As a 19-year-old who recently graduated from Edgewood High School and was attending community college nearby, Whittenburg had faced a tough decision in the spring.
A strong showing at the Winter Cup Challenge in February had propelled him into the national spotlight again, earning him a spot on the U.S. men's senior national team, and the team's coaches came calling.
Come to Colorado Springs, Colo., they said, and practice at the Olympic Training Center.
Since the 2010 Junior Olympics, “I've been trying to get him here to train because I saw a lot of potential in him,” head coach Vitaly Marinitch said. “I thought it would be a great place for him.”
But Whittenburg wasn't sure he was ready to leave his coach of nearly 15 years, Abdul Mammeri. It took a conversation with one of his community college professors for him to consider Colorado seriously, he said.
“I told [his English professor] that I'd be leaving for international competition for a week, and she said, ‘Yeah, if you miss like three days of class, you're going to fail,'” he said. “So I said, ‘All right, I guess I'm not coming here again.'”
After discussing his options with his family and Mammeri, Whittenburg realized he would get free tuition at DeVry University and the online classes better suited his practice schedule, he said. It was time to leave Baltimore.
The apartments at the training center feature communal living space with adjoining bedrooms and bathrooms. Whittenburg shared his with one roommate, John Orozco, a 21-year-old New York gymnast he met when they were preteens.
The move “wasn't a big drastic change,” Whittenburg said. But it took some time for him to adjust to the new routine.
A self-proclaimed shy person — men's national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika describes him as “unassuming and quiet” — Whittenburg said he had to break out of his shell to get to know his new teammates, some of whom he's competed against since his junior nationals days.
He also trains more than before. Practices are now two to three hours, twice a day, six days a week. And unlike Mammeri, who preferred a more relaxed style of coaching, Marinitch tries to get Whittenburg to practice more of his fundamental skills.
“He just always finds something to correct. … ‘All right, this skill's really hard, can you just give some recognition that I did it?'” Whittenburg said of Marinitch. “But I mean, gymnastics is about [being] perfect, so it makes sense that he's correcting.”
Marinitch said Whittenburg has improved his starting scores in every event, even in his strongest, rings, in which he has developed one of the best dismounts in the world. He can “handle just about anything you throw at him,” Marinitch said.
“He's just been on almost this vertical learning curve, and he's improved just so so much and it's phenomenal,” Mazeika said of Whittenburg. “He can do things in gymnastics that nobody else in the world can do — or very few in the world can do.”
So assistant coach Andriy Stepanchenko recommended that he try the Ri Se Gwang because he noticed Whittenburg is able to twist while in the pike position — a difficult combination to pull off.
“It's still kind of scary, like sometimes I don't know where I am,” Whittenburg said. “I've been doing a lot of numbers with that vault and trying to get used to it, trying to figure out my air sense, but for now, it's going pretty well.”
The move might take him far at his first world championships, which will run from Friday until Oct. 12, and he'll draw on his experiences to prepare. Consistency, his coaches said, will be key.
“It hasn't really hit me yet. … But soon as I get there and start going to the gym, it'll feel like just another day at practice,” Whittenburg said.
And if he performs well next week, there's a chance he could make the 2016 Summer Olympics roster, Marinitch said.
“I certainly see him making that team, but who knows? It's still kind of far away,” he said. “We just hope he … stays healthy and does what he's capable of doing. He definitely has the potential to make the team.”