The pressure will be back on the U.S. men's national gymnastics team Thursday night, and it won't be this intense again until the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The days are growing short for Baltimore's Donnell Whittenburg (Edgewood) and the 17 other team members to clinch their spot in the Games.
At the end of this weekend's Olympic trials in St. Louis, just five will be headed to Rio.
In Thursday and Saturday's trials, each of the 18 gymnasts will compete twice in the six events: high bar, parallel bars, pommel horse, still rings, floor exercise and vault. At the Olympics, teams field three competitors in each event, and all three scores count.
At the national championships three weeks ago in Hartford, Conn., Whittenburg tied for fifth, putting him squarely on the bubble.
In last year's U.S. championships, Whittenburg earned a silver medal in the all-around. He also has competed in the past two world championships, finishing eighth last year — best among Americans — to enter the Olympic conversation. At 21, this might be his best shot in a sport where the shelf life for the top athletes isn't long.
Placing in the top five this weekend won't secure Whittenburg's spot, nor will finishing outside the top five eliminate him from contention. Because of the need for three gymnasts on each apparatus, team officials will seek to balance strengths and weaknesses, sending the lineup that gives them the best chance across the board.
Like any other gymnast, Whittenburg has his strengths and weaknesses. He was in first place overall after the first day of competition in Hartford but dropped to fifth after falling on the pommel horse (where he finished 25th) and high bar (where he tied for 12th).
He did, however, win the title on still rings, defending his 2015 national championship. He also placed in the top five in vault (tied for fourth) and parallel bars (fifth). To have a chance to qualify for the Olympic team, a gymnast generally has to be an asset in three events, like Whittenburg. He was 11th on floor exercise, the final event.
U.S. gymnasts can earn automatic bids to the Olympics, but only by finishing in the top two overall this weekend and in the top three in three of the six events over the combined four days of competition. Through the first two days, in Hartford, no one had done that. A selection committee will choose the remaining spots.
Four-time U.S. champion Sam Mikulak is the gymnast most likely to make the American team when it's announced after competition Saturday. Jake Dalton follows closely behind him, but after those two, the field is considered wide open.
Thursday and Saturday's competitions both start at 8 p.m. They will be televised on Thursday starting at 8:30 on NBC Sports and on Saturday starting at 9 on chs. 11 and 4.