Donnell Whittenburg competes at U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Gymnastics on June 24, 2021 in St. Louis.
ST. LOUIS — For a moment Thursday, even if literally just a moment, Donnell Whittenburg led the men’s all-around standings at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Gymnastics.
Sure, it was just one rotation. And yeah, it was vault — vault scores are always high. Then, inevitably, the gymnasts marched to the next apparatus and the meet continued on like it always does, with most the attention focused on defending U.S. champion Brody Malone, two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak and the other top all-arounders competing this weekend at the Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis.
In a twist, though, the U.S. men’s gymnastics contingent heading to Tokyo next month includes not only the four-person team but also an individual whose scores don’t count toward the team, but who nonetheless can compete for individual medals.
And while the coming media coverage will no doubt continue to focus largely on the team and then the individual all-around, an argument could be made that the country’s top medal hope might actually be the event specialist who’s expected to fill that “plus-one” spot.
So while the focus moves on from Whittenburg, maybe you shouldn’t.
With his chiseled physique and bulging arm muscles, the Baltimore native with the powerful gymnastics was one of the bright young talents for the U.S. team during the last Olympic quad. He was selected for the 2014 and ’15 world championships, winning a team bronze at the former and a vault bronze at the latter. One year before the Rio Games, he was the country’s top-placing all-arounder at worlds in eighth.
Then, when the five-man team for Rio was announced, Whittenburg was the alternate.
He traveled to Brazil, along with fellow alternate Akash Modi, but they didn’t stay in the athletes’ village and, of course, couldn’t compete.
In the usual post-Olympic turnover, Whittenburg was set up to be the guy going into Tokyo. Fired up, he came into the 2017 with big expectations, and mostly lived up to them — at least on his signature events: He won the U.S. title on vault and finished seventh in the world championships on floor.
As it turned out, though, he was competing that season with a torn rotator cuff. After surgery that fall, he used 2018 mostly as a recovery year. The expected bounce back in 2019 never came.
After a 2020 in which he didn’t get in any competitions, and also moved to the Milwaukee area from the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the 26-year-old simply wasn’t top of mind coming into the Olympic year.
Ah, but the plus-one.
The operative words for that spot are medal potential.
Which athlete not already on the four-person team is most likely to reach the podium in an individual event?
In the Olympics, the team finals use a three up-three count format — meaning three gymnasts compete on each event, and all three scores count. With just four athletes to pick from, the prevailing wisdom is that the top all-arounders will be on the team.
That means the plus-one spot is likely to go to a specialist — a guy who really owns one or two events but doesn’t have the full body of scores to merit team inclusion.
What does the selection committee look at to determine medal potential? U.S. national team coordinator Brett McClure summed up the criteria ahead of trials.
“All of the above,” he said.
But more specifically: difficulty, execution, hit percentage and previous results.
Coming into nationals a group of four guys had risen to the top of that discussion.
Stephen Nedoroscik and Alex Diab are true specialists, competing in just pommel horse and still rings, respectively. Youth Olympian Alec Yoder does two events, but where he’ll make his Olympic bed is on pommel horse. (Another specialist, Eddie Penev, figured to be right in the mix with his vault and floor but was injured in a mock meet just before trials.)
The wildcard in the discussion was Whittenburg. And his status coming into trials was all the more mysterious, as he was one of five guys who missed the national championships earlier this month in order to compete in the Pan American Championships in Brazil — a meet at which he didn’t actually compete as the team’s alternate.
So when he led off the trials on vault, the event in which he has the strongest case for medal potential, it proved to be one of the most anticipated performances of the night.
Performing an ultra-difficult Tsukahara full-in double tuck, he landed with a small hop and a score of 15.05, tied for the top score on any event of the night.
“It felt pretty good,” he said. “I’ve been training it for a couple months now so I feel like I have no choice but to land it at this competition.”
He followed that up with a second vault — a requirement for the individual event final at the Olympics — and landed a less difficult but still impressive double front, this time with a big step forward. He said he’s considering upgrading this one to a more difficult Dragulescu vault, which is a double front with a half spin off the table.
Although Whittenberg’s other events were less memorable — he finished third on still rings but outside the top 10 on the others, and 14th in the all-around — that might not have mattered. All he needs is one event.
Nedoroscik, who many considered the favorite for the plus-one spot coming into the weekend, fell on his lone event Thursday. Diab, who posted an Olympic-medal-contending routine on day one at nationals, wasn’t as sharp on night two and, though he posted the top score on Thursday, it also was a few tenths lower than day one at nationals..
That left Yoder, with a confident, first-place routine on horse — the other 15.05 — and Whittenburg as the two to really hit on their key events.
With one night to go there remains much to be decided, and it’d be foolish to rule out Nedoroscik or Diab entirely. As for Whittenburg, he says whether he makes the Olympics or not he plans to compete for a spot at the world championships this fall and then likely retire. With another performance like the one tonight, though, he may just have a trip to Tokyo to plan first.
“I already know exactly where I stack up, it’s just a matter of doing exactly what I need to do when I’m out on the floor,” he said. “I know that I can compete with the best specialists in the world. If I just do my job then I feel like the rest will take care of itself.”