In his first trip to the World Championships in China last fall, gymnast Donnell Whittenburg allowed himself a moment to admire the reigning Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion, Japan's Kohei Uchimura.
It was an "eye-opener," he said — the Baltimore native realized he was on that level, competing alongside the world's top gymnasts — a sensation that won't likely fade for one of America's rising stars.
Whittenburg is one of two American men in the nine-man field for Saturday's AT&T American Cup, the last of three International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) World Cup series events and — outside the national and world championships — a showcase event for U.S. gymnasts.
"I used to watch the AT&T American Cup all the time," Whittenburg, 20, said late last month on a conference call. "I watched all the big names compete there. Having my name up there with all the other top athletes definitely is an honor and hopefully will be a great experience for me."
The showcase event, held at the Dallas Cowboys' 80,000 seat AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and broadcast nationally on NBC, is the latest in a series of high-profile competitions as Whittenburg prepares for a run at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Other competitors include two-time reigning national champion Sam Mikulak, Japanese stars Ryohei Kato and Yusuke Tanaka, and Oleg Verniaiev of Ukraine.
That Whittenburg was selected to compete with them is a symbol of what NBC Sports gymnastics analyst and Olympic gold-medal winner Tim Daggett said has been a "vertical" learning curve since he began training full time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Whittenburg, an Edgewood graduate who after high school tried to balance training and competing with community college classes, finally decided after years of prodding to move to Colorado after a second-place finish in the all-around and still rings at the Winter Cup Challenge in February 2014.
In July, he took first place in the all-around and vault in the 2014 National Qualifier, which earned him a spot at the P&G National Championships in August.
There, Whittenburg won the vault with a rare move known as the Ri Se Gwang (named after the South Korean gymnast who originally completed it), which features a half-twist onto the vault, then a full twist and double flip off the vault. His fourth-place overall finish at that competition earned him a spot on the national team in the World Championships in October in China.
Whittenburg impressed in qualifiers there, and helped the United States to a bronze medal in the team competition, but he finished 17th in the individual all-around. He acknowledged fatigue, and feeling the pressure of the event, but his new focus on fundamentals at the Olympic Training Center could combat that.
"When I was back training back at home, I didn't really work on much technique," he said. "Then coming out here, I worked on the basics, tried to clean up a few things. It's definitely helped out a lot coming out here."
He's coming off an overall third-place finish in the 2015 Winter Cup Challenge two weeks ago, an event he said was good preparation for this weekend's competition. Daggett, an American Cup champion, said Whittenburg's selection to represent the United States at its home tournament was a "very big deal" for the Baltimore gymnast, who is "a little bit of an anomaly" with his rise over the last few years.
"The thing about Donnell is because of his power, that's enabled him to just really come to the top of the USA program and be a contender internationally," Daggett said. "He's amazingly powerful in every way. A lot of gymnasts are powerful on a couple of different things, but he somehow is able to translate that into all six of the events."
Daggett said that based on sheer potential, Whittenburg "could be an Olympic gold medalist" on vault in 2016, while his power also translates to still rings and parallel bars, which is unique.
"He has the opportunity to do great things," in Arlington, Daggett said. "He's going to have an audience that's going to be behind him because it's going to be in the United States. It's going to be a very exciting event, and it's going to be a very close event. There are some of the best guys in the world competing here. … He's got his work cut out for him, but I would say that if he does his job and he does what he's capable of, he can be right in the hunt."