BOSTON -- Akash Modi had a “fire” deep inside. Donnell Whittenburg was ready to do “everything I possibly can” when he arrived at last year’s national gymnastics championships.
Different circumstances had led to the gymnasts being in Rio for the 2016 Olympic Games, but neither was there as an Olympian.
They were alternates.
Now it was their time.
Modi arrived in Anaheim, California, for the 2017 nationals ready to be the guy, a co-favorite to win the all-around title. Whittenburg was ready to reclaim the potential showed two years earlier, when he was eighth in the world in the all-around and third on vault, before an inconsistent 2016 season kept him off the Olympic team.
Instead, Modi finished fourth in Anaheim. Whittenburg, like in 2016, was hot and cold. Though the latter ended up making the four-person world championships team, he looked more like a specialist than the guy who posted the best U.S. all-around score at the 2015 worlds.
Much has changed one year later, as the two wrapped up the first day of competition in Boston at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, which are part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
Modi is no longer the headliner, having ceded that status to defending national champ Yul Moldauer and two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak, who was limited last year with injures. With less attention, the 23-year-old Modi, a Stanford grad student studying mechanical engineering, is trusting his process as he works toward a peak in 2020.
His confidence showed on Thursday, when he hit six of six routines to finish the first night of competition in second place, his 84.100 points second only to four-time U.S. champion Mikulak’s 85.150. Those scores will be combined with Saturday’s results to determine national champions.
“I’m pretty happy with how today went,” said Modi, who posted top-three scores on three apparatuses.
Whittenburg was equally satisfied, though his circumstances couldn’t have been more different. Turns out he competed this past season with a torn rotator cuff. Surgery repaired that last November, and the 23-year-old completed his first routine in practice just 13 days ago. Showing up to Boston because “I just had that itch to come back on the competition floor,” Whittenburg is competing only on rings and parallel bars this weekend. And compete is used loosely.
“I just want to get out here and get my feet wet a little bit,” he said. “It’s definitely not my comeback.”
So on Thursday, the Baltimore native was loose and smiling as he changed out of his competition clothes after posting the sixth best rings score and 20th best parallel bars score of the night.
“It felt pretty good honestly,” he said. “The warmups were really good, I felt ready to go out there and hit the sets that I was going to do. … I’m definitely happy about my performance today.”
Whittenburg, with chiseled upper-body muscles bulging through his skin, said he needs to get in better shape still — he’s talking stamina, not strength — but perfect routines were never part of the agenda this weekend.
“A lot of the guys aren’t 100 percent right now, so I’m trying to just play my part as best as I can,” he said. “If they want to use me on the world (championships) team, that’s great, I can definitely fill in some spots. If not, that would be fine. I can go rest and try do my rehab a little bit more.”
Modi, meanwhile, is in go mode, fully aiming for a spot at this year’s world championships, which start Oct. 25 in Doha, Qatar. After one day of competition he’s in strong position, but he was in the same position after Day 1 last year.
This time, he’s got a few things going for him.
Last year’s world championships were an individual format, and U.S. officials elected to focus the four-person team on specialists rather than multiple all-arounders, with a secondary aim of getting new gymnasts experience on the international level. This year’s worlds is back to the team format, with five gymnasts per country and more emphasis on all-around balance, where Modi thrives.
Modi also noted that he didn’t exactly tank last year. His Day 2 score at nationals dropped by just 0.15, but a strong showing by the field still dropped him two spots back in the final standings.
He’s confident he can avoid that fate this time.
Last year he was coming off his senior season at Stanford, ending a career in which he was twice the NCAA all-around champion and twice the runner-up. College gymnastics meant Modi was competing four times a month. This year, Modi’s first full season as a pro, nationals is just his fourth competition of the year. He’s also more confident in his gymnastics.
“(Last year) I was more focused on, let’s stay on the equipment rather than let’s show off the skills,” he said. Now he’s focusing on accentuating his routines.
“This year I’m just trying to focus more on like keeping my position open and really showing a good handstand, those little things, instead of thinking, OK, how can I keep this skill on the bar,” he said.
In some ways, the 2018 season is proving to be a respite for the 2016 alternates. The sting of just missing out on Rio has had some time to sink in, and the expectations shadowing the 2017 nationals aren’t so frontal in 2018. Both are resetting and refocusing.
They know the heat will turn up soon.
“Just try to heal up and get ready for 2019 and 2020, because that’s obviously the main goal,” Whittenburg said.
For Modi, that same goal could be more deliberate. Rest allowed him to avoid shoulder surgery this past April, but when it comes to 2020, he’s putting everything on the table.
“After this championships or worlds, if I make it, I’m definitely going to reassess and be like, OK, what can I do to make my performance the best for the next year and a half?” Modi said.
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials every year since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.