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Q&A With Olympic Gymnastics Alternates Leyva, Modi And Whittenburg

By Brandon Penny | June 26, 2016, 3:14 p.m. (ET)

(L-R) Danell Leyva, Akash Modi and Donnell Whittenburg were named as alternates in men's gymnastics for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team. 

ST. LOUIS -- It may be the hardest position to be in. Imagine having just put everything you have on the line in four days of intense competition and finding out you did not make the Olympic team; a lifelong dream few get to realize. Now imagine that just three hours after your name was not called, you receive a different call: one saying you were selected to continue training as if you were on the team, but that you may never have the opportunity to actually compete.
That is what Danell Leyva, Akash Modi and Donnell Whittenburg experienced late Saturday night. The three were named as replacement athletes for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Men’s Gymnastics Team. Should any of the five Olympic team members withdraw, get injured or are removed from the team for any reason, one or more of those athletes would be called upon to compete at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
The replacement athletes chosen are further proof of the strength of the U.S. men’s national team. The selection committee had the tough task of settling on a five-member team that did not include an Olympic all-around medalist and world champion (Leyva), a 13-time NCAA medalist (Modi), and a world vault medalist who was Team USA’s top all-around finisher at last year’s world championships (Whittenburg).
Here is what the trio had to say hours after learning their fate:

Danell Leyva

After you finished competing last night, did you think you had done enough to be chosen for the Olympic team?
I thought I had done what I had to do. I felt really good about this meet. I did all six events both days without falling. Not just that, I did them pretty well. I felt like the second day was better than the first day in certain areas, and I’m happy about that. Guess you never know.
What was the moment like when all 18 competitors were in the room and only those five names were called?
It was really hard because obviously you’re expecting something, and it doesn’t happen. It’s tough.
Is the replacement athlete selection a silver lining?
It’s hard either way. I guess it was bittersweet in a way because now I’m going to train as if I was named on the competitive team because you never know what’s going to happen. But I don’t wish anything on anybody. I want everyone to stay as healthy as they possibly can because it’s a great group of guys; not only as gymnasts or athletes, but as people. But yeah, I’m going to train as if I’m named on the team because if they say, ‘You’re on the team,’ I’m going to say, ‘All right, here we go.’
Regardless of what happens, you will still travel to Rio. What are you most looking forward to about experiencing there?
Rio is a beautiful place. It’s amazing. When we went for the camp in January, I really felt like it was my people. I was born in a Hispanic country (Cuba), and just being around Hispanic people like that is awesome. To be able to be back in a situation like that is going to be amazing.
Does knowing two replacement athletes were called up to compete in 2008 help in this process?
Raj (Bhavsar) was actually one of the first ones to come up to me, and he was like, ‘Hey man, be ready. You never know, so just be ready.’ And he was one of the two that were named to the competitive team after being an alternate in 2008.
What are your plans after 2016?
I don’t know yet. I’m not super focused on that just yet. I’ll tell you after Rio. It’s not that I don’t have any commitments because I have a lot of ideas and dreams that I want to do, but I’m not focusing on it just because it’s not important at this moment. What’s important at this moment is Rio. After Rio, I’ll tell you.
Akash Modi

How much a part of the conversation did you think you were for the Olympic team?
I knew that pommel horse was keeping me in the conversation, for sure. And I was keeping up in the all-around with everybody, and parallel bars was keeping me up there, so I knew I was in there. It’s really awesome to be named an alternate, to know that these guys are counting on me to have their back.
What went through your mind when the team was named? 
It was bittersweet, for sure. I knew my performance just wasn’t good enough to make the team, but there’s always a little bit of hope. Honestly, it was a proud moment. When they named the team, I knew right there this is the best team we have. We’re putting the best guys out there and I think we can pull out a medal, for sure.
When did you find out you were chosen as a replacement athlete?
It was last night around 1 a.m. I was still up. I was actually in the parking lot of a Denny’s. I had just finished eating with my family. We heard the news and just went crazy. … I had my parents and a lot of my aunts and uncles that came from Chicago. It was really an awesome moment.
Your cousin, Raj Bhavsar, was a replacement athlete in 2008 and ended up competing at the Olympics. Have you spoken to him about this?
I’ve talked with him a lot about that (before Olympic Trials). But now that I’ve been put as an alternate, I haven’t yet. I still need to talk to him. He went to sleep before I found out.

What will your training and preparation be like leading up to Rio?
I’m treating this as if I’m on the team. All the preparation is going to be exactly like I’m on the team. I’m going to go into the meet thinking I’m on the team, until that exact moment when I can’t compete anymore.

What are you most looking forward to in Rio, regardless of whether you compete?
Everything. I just really want to soak it in. These last two meets, I’ve just been enjoying it – having fun, competing, doing what I love to do, seeing all the people that support our sport, and seeing all the gymnastics that we do for our country. It’s a really cool thing and I just want to see us go out there and do the best we can.

Donnell Whittenburg

What emotions did you experience last night when the team was named?
You always want to hear your name called, but you just have to keep your emotions in. 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.
When Olympic Trials ended and you were awaiting the decision, did you feel like you had made the team?
In a way, I did. But I feel like the selection committee made a good choice. 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.

Your roommate at the Olympic Training Center is John Orozco (one of the five Olympic team members). What will that dynamic be like for the next few weeks?
We’ll always be best friends. We support each other through the worst of times and the best of times. I’m just so happy for him. He’s worked his butt off, and just to see both of us progress on a personal level and in gymnastics is awesome.

What are you most looking forward to in Rio?
Just to take it all in. This only happens once in a lifetime, so just going to go out there and enjoy it as best as I can.
What’s next for you after this year?
I’m planning to keep training for 2020, so I’m not going to stay out of it yet. Just going to keep going and see what happens.

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