Donnell Whittenburg was hurting.
Aloft on the parallel bars, he had glided through the first couple moves of his routine somewhat cleanly. He had picked a challenging one, rated a 6.300. There was none tougher in the 30-man field at the U.S. gymnastics championships on the opening Thursday night in August at Boston’s TD Garden.
But when he moved into the handstand, his muscle-thick arms began to stiffen. He swayed forward.
“I just tried to shift my hand up a little bit so like I could catch my balance, but my hand literally wouldn't come up the bar,” Whittenburg said. “It felt like it was like stuck. My hands were super tired. That's just an endurance thing. It's good that I have one p-bar set out of the way.”
He notched a 13.150. Earlier in the night, he’d scored a 14.150 on the still rings. He would score slightly better Saturday with a 13.800 and 14.400, respectively.
“I'm definitely not where I want to be at this point,” he said at the time.
Walking away from judging area, Whittenburg gripped his collarbone. He had tweaked it the Sunday before — just what he needed, after months of rehabilitation and training.
“Right now, I feel like I'm just testing the waters again,” Whittenburg said. “This is nowhere near the comeback I would like to have. This is not my comeback at all.”
Right now, I feel like I'm just testing the waters again.— Baltimore native Donnell Whittenburg on his comeback from shoulder surgery
The past 12 months have tossed the Baltimore native off course. An alternate at the Rio Olympics, Whittenburg was working on securing a roster spot for Tokyo. But after major shoulder surgery in November 2017, he’s slowly inching back to where he wants to be.
“Patience has been a key role,” USA men’s gymnastics high-performance director Brett McClure said, “because he has not been able to push the recovery process as quickly as we’d hoped.”
The previous summer, Whittenburg had earned a bronze overall in the U.S. championships after putting up a 15.000 on vault and a 14.850 on rings. It was the kind of foothold an athlete climbing up after an unexpected exclusion from the U.S. team in the Olympics needed.
But his injuries have swept him off his trajectory. While his competitors took part in every, if not nearly every, event offered at the U.S. championships, Whittenburg could only manage the rings and the p-bars. Even those two are extremely taxing on the shoulders and collarbone.
“I literally can't do any other events right now,” he said then. “Those are the only ones that I'm pretty much ready for. I was going to do vaults, but the vaults are not ready yet. I do not want to risk any more injuries, so I just try to play it safe for right now.”
Over the past year, Whittenburg has made the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs his unofficial residence to put himself back in place.
“This is Donnell’s first experience with an injury that involved surgery,” McClure said, “so there has been a bit of a learning curve regarding the recovery and return to competition. But he has worked very hard to get back to competitive readiness.”
In the three months since Boston, Whittenburg’s shoulder has strengthened to where he’s almost at the point where he can run his entire routine without pain.
But for all the training and rehab the 24-year-old put in — of the latter, more than he thinks he’s ever done in his life — there were still big pockets of time where all Whittenburg could do was twiddle his thumbs, if he let himself.
To combat creeping feelings of idleness, Whittenburg leaned on the support of his teammates, but that wasn’t all he needed. He started designing clothes, putting together T-shirts, hoodies and accessories for a line he released in August and is still tinkering with in terms of manufacturers. It’s called “Exist Limitless.”
“That was something that kept me really occupied through those rough times,” Whittenburg said, “Honestly, because I couldn't do as much gymnastics as I wanted to. Designing was my safe haven.”
Right now, that’s what his Olympic dreams are — limitless. Whittenburg foresees a comeback by 2019, when his body will feel “100 percent” again and he’ll be able to craft routines and upgrade skills that will punch him a spot in Tokyo. A real one, on the roster.
Right now, he has his eyes on the Winter Cup Challenge, a USA Gymnastics event held in Las Vegas in mid-February. By then, he’ll be healthier, and expects to be able to expand his repertoire of events.
He’s also been able to gradually reincorporate a third event, the pommel horse, into his routine. The step shows demonstrative improvement from where he was three months ago, let alone a year ago.
“I had tendinitis for a quite a while, trying to strengthen my triceps so I’ll be able to swing … without any elbow problems,” Whittenburg said.
He thinks he’s pinned down his irreplaceable quality that Team USA won’t be able to clinch 2020 gold without. Like the set he used in Boston, Whittenburg likes difficult routines. They score him, and the team, high early on.
“I know for a fact that with my high-start value, they're going to need some firepower for the team,” he said. “I know I'm that person that can be there to help them in the situation. ... I have no doubt that, if I'm completely healthy, I will be there for sure.”
Once that goal’s past, though — there’s a hole that he’s trying to stitch up.
“That's going to be the hard part. Trying to segue into my career after gymnastics,” Whittenburg said. “[Designing], that's what I want to do after — be a clothing designer. I love fashion.”