When the U.S. Olympic trials ended late Saturday night in St. Louis, Donnell Whittenburg was fourth overall. The men's gymnastics team is a five-man squad, and he had finished eighth in last year's world championships, best of any American.
So, Whittenburg was asked Sunday, did he feel then that he was headed to Rio de Janeiro?
"In a way," the Baltimore native and Edgewood graduate said in a Team USA interview, "I did."
Whittenburg is indeed Brazil-bound, but after a decade-plus of practice, including the past three years at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, he might have to wait until 2020 for another shot at Summer Games glory.
Whittenburg was not one of the five gymnasts named Saturday to the U.S. team, instead picked Sunday as one of three "replacement athletes," or alternates. He will train and prepare along with the squad and may be subbed onto the team if a member withdraws.
"You always want to hear your name called, but you just have to keep your emotions in," Whittenburg, who could not be reached for comment, said in the Team USA interview. "I'm still pretty happy. I get to travel with these guys and be able to support them, and I still have a role to play. I'm still going to train as hard as these guys do because you never know what's going to happen. It's gymnastics; anything can happen in the sport, so you just have to be ready."
Never was that more apparent than this weekend at Chafitz Arena. Whittenburg, 21, led in the all-around after the first day of the national championships earlier this month in Hartford, Conn., and after finishing tied for fifth in the event, was considered a favorite to make the U.S. team.
But he was inconsistent throughout his two days in St. Louis. While Whittenburg finished second on still rings and vault and third on parallel bars at the trials, he was eighth of 15 on floor exercise, 14th of 17 on pommel horse and 12th of 15 on horizontal bar.
The six-member U.S. selection committee's stated goal was to assemble an Olympic roster with the best potential for winning a team medal. Squads send three gymnasts to each apparatus, and all three scores count, forcing officials to consider individual strengths and weaknesses.
Alex Naddour and John Orozco, for instance, competed in just four of six events but had scores among the middle or upper third in each. They will join Sam Mikulak, Chris Brooks and Jake Dalton, who finished atop the all-around standings, in Rio.
"I feel like the selection committee made a good choice," Whittenburg said. "They thought about the team first, and some of the strengths and weaknesses on that team didn't match up, so it is what it is, but I'm still happy to be out there and support these guys."
Said men's national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika: "It's heartbreaking that not all of them get to go to Rio. We saw a fantastic display of gymnastics tonight."
Akash Modi and Danell Leyva, who earned bronze in the all-around four years ago in London, also were named alternates and will work out with the Olympic team over the next six weeks in the lead-up to the Aug. 5 opening ceremonies.
Whittenburg's Olympic dreams might be only half-realized, but two teammates' weekend breakthroughs could offer a plan for his own. In 2012, Naddour was an alternate. So was Brooks, who will make his Olympic debut at age 29.
"I'm planning to keep training for 2020, so I'm not going to stay out of it yet," Whittenburg said. "Just going to keep going and see what happens."