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U.S. Olympic Training Center Breeds Competitive, But Close, Gymnasts

By Chrös McDougall | Aug. 15, 2015, 3:10 a.m. (ET)

Donnell Whittenburg competes on vault at the 2015 P&G Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 14, 2015 in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS -- When Donnell Whittenburg leaves the gym after his second two-hour practice of the day, he heads to dinner with the gymnasts he trained with all day. Then he heads back to the dorm he shares with one of the gymnasts he trains with during the day. And if he wants to socialize, he’ll watch a movie or play video games with those same gymnasts he trains with all day.

Life for the men’s gymnastics contingent at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, can sometimes start to feel claustrophobic.

But the close friendships and elite training keep them motivated.

Ten of the 35 men’s gymnasts competing this weekend at the P&G Gymnastics Championships are based out of the town locals refer to simply as “The Springs.” As of May that group includes Sam Mikulak, a 2012 Olympian who appears on his way to winning a third consecutive U.S. all-around title after scoring 92.0 points Friday, the first of two days of competition.

Sitting 2.35 points back in second place is Whittenburg, while fellow USOTC training partner Paul Ruggeri III is 1.3 points behind in third place. Three more USOTC athletes — Chris Brooks, Brandon Wynn and Marvin Kimble — were also among the top 10 going into the final day of competition on Sunday.

“We all live together, we train together, we eat together,” Whittenburg said. “So we just have to get used to each other and try to cheer on that person as much as we can.”

Training together six days a week — they get Sundays off, and only train once on Thursday and Saturday — creates a culture in which the athletes are constantly striving to be the best, said Kevin Mazeika, the U.S. men’s national team coordinator.

“You look at the all-around scores: ‘Can I beat the other guy?’” he said.

The camaraderie amongst the group is similar to that of a college team, said Mikulak, whose Michigan Wolverines won NCAA championships in his junior and senior seasons. But unlike college, the focus for each OTC gymnast is individual.

“Everyone is very independent, but motivated through their independence,” he said.

Mikulak won three NCAA all-around titles at Michigan and continued to train with that program after his eligibility ran out in 2014. However, the draw of world-class training partners led him to Colorado this past spring.

“I kind of needed to be training with guys who have a similar goal, that wasn’t (winning) an NCAA championship,” he said. “I wanted to give it everything I’ve got by moving out to Colorado, a commitment to gymnastics, and saying I want to make the most out of this next year leading up to Rio.”

Mikulak’s presence has raised the already high standard in the OTC gym. Back in the dorms, the Southern California native’s presence has brought a welcome dose of what Whittenburg describes as “chill happiness.”

“Sam is definitely the goofy one in the group, for sure,” said Whittenburg, 20, the United States’ brightest new star to emerge since the 2012 Games. “It kind of rubs off on us a little bit when he’s around. He’s very contagious.”

Each gymnast has his own bedroom and bathroom but shares a living room with a roommate. Mikulak lives with up-and-comer Kimble while Whittenburg shares a suite with John Orozco, a 2012 U.S. Olympian who’s sidelined with a torn Achilles tendon. When not in the gym, the guys can often be found in one of their living rooms, usually with an NBA2K or Super Smash Bros. video game going. If they’re feeling particularly stir crazy they might drive an hour north to Denver.

These respites together keep the gymnasts light, even as they work toward the same goals — and sometimes in competition with each other.

On Sunday, the goal for all 35 gymnasts is to win national titles, though Mikulak’s lead in the all-around competition will be tough to overcome. On Sunday night, USA Gymnastics will name a six-person team that will compete at the World Gymnastics Championships beginning Oct. 23 in Glasgow, Scotland.

Then the ultimate goal is next summer, when five men’s gymnasts will compete for Team USA at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.

It’s an accomplishment that 30 competitors this weekend will fall short of, but a challenge all 35 can appreciate going through together.

“These guys, they’re like one big family,” Mazeika said. “This sport is so hard. There’s this sense of humility and respect for every guy competing. It’s definitely like a brotherhood.”

Chrös McDougall has been a reporter and editor for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.