Sitting in the selection room inside Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis last June, Donnell Whittenburg felt like all eyes were on him. The five names of the gymnasts who would represent Team USA at the 2016 Rio Olympics had just been read – and his was not one of them.
He sat silently, in a total state of shock.
A few minutes later, as Sam Mikulak, Jake Dalton, Chris Brooks, Alex Naddour and John Orozco ran out to greet thousands of screaming fans, Sheila Brown – Whittenburg’s mother – sat in the stands, waiting for her son to run out onto the floor, too.
“I was sitting out there waiting for him, and he didn’t come,” she recalled. “He just didn’t.”
What Whittenburg, now 22, has done since, however, is turn the darkest moment of his career into fuel to achieve great things.
“Overall, it was definitely disappointing,” a candid Whittenburg told USA Gymnastics in a recent phone interview. “It was a life lesson nevertheless, and it helped me grow as a person. It was an eye-opener.”
But not a lesson that was easy to see clearly right away. Whittenburg met his mom, the woman who he calls “my rock,” at his hotel that night after the selection in St. Louis. The two embraced to console one another. “I think my mom took it harder than I did,” he said.
It was in that moment, though, that they both decided that he would look towards the future for more success.
“If one door shuts, the other door opens,” Brown said, echoing her son’s approach. “He just hasn’t given up. He’s been through a whole lot. Someone else in his position might have gone into pieces, but we don’t have time for that.”
Whittenburg has used his time since June to raise the level of his already-powerful gymnastics. After going to Rio alongside Akash Modi as an alternate (with Danell Leyva being brought up to replace an injured Orozco), Whittenburg went on the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, where he challenged himself to stay in shape by doing different skills in the show each week.
When he made his way back to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in November, he was itching to find a regular training routine and start driving towards his next goal: the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“Once tour was finished, I was very excited to get back into the gym and get back to work,” Whittenburg explained. “For me, it was pretty motivating after last year. … I have to train harder. I have to try and make the next Olympic team. That’s my goal going into this next quad.”
He started that quad with a fourth place finish at Winter Cup in Las Vegas in February, then was second in the all-around at the London World Cup event last month, finishing behind Olympic silver medalist Oleg Verniaiev while earning the top score on floor.
“(In London) it felt pretty good to be back out on the international stage; I missed going out and performing for a different crowd,” said Whittenburg, who had a breakout performance at the 2015 World Championships, where he was eighth in the all-around and third on vault. “I would have loved to have beaten Oleg, but it’s all about making that next step and going to another level.”
This week, Whittenburg heads back to Europe and to Koper, Slovenia, for the FIG World Challenge Cup. Fellow OTC trainees Donothan Bailey and Eddie Penev will compete for the U.S. alongside Whittenburg, as well.
“I don’t really have set goals” for this season, Whittenburg said. “I just want to make sure to be as ready as possible and that when I’m at a competition, I can hit my routines almost 100 percent of the time. Consistency is a key factor in gymnastics right now. That’s what we’re all striving for.”
If his missing out on Rio was the turning point, that focus on consistency has been his mantra since. Personnel and athlete changes in Colorado Springs have meant a different work setting in a sense, shifts that have driven Whittenburg to be more self-sufficient and more selfish – for his own good.
“He’s had to rise up a little bit and make a statement and do things on his own,” said Jamie Broz, head athletic trainer for the Men’s National Team. “He was really a I’m-doing-it-for-the-team guy. He’s finally realizing that he has to do himself first and then see how that works into the team.”
Brooks, who remains at the OTC as an athlete, has been a wise voice in Whittenburg’s ear, while newcomers Kanji Oyama and Cameron Bock have infused a fresh sort of energy at the training facility. Whittenburg has had to take a leadership role of sorts, a position that has further cemented a changed approach.
“There’s always that little [extra] 10 percent that you just want to get out of yourself,” he explained. “It’s not about the difficulty of the skills that I can’t do, it’s more about refining and showing how consistent I can be. There is always work to be done in this sport. There is no perfect gymnast; we all make mistakes. I just feel like there’s always more that you can do. I can always get to another level, and that’s what I’m striving for.”
Broz has seen the metamorphosis from June of last year to today.
“Not making the team was a wake-up call,” she said. “He re-focused from there. He had to get in touch with who he is as an athlete. Where before he rode that feeling of ‘I’m good enough,’ now he has to do more. I don’t know if he knew he was capable of doing more previously. Now he’s figuring it out.”
Growing up in Baltimore, Whittenburg started gymnastics at the age of 5 after his mother said “he was running and jumping everywhere.”
“When I was pregnant with Donnell he was turning around in my stomach,” she remembered, laughing. “I put him in the gym at 5. I didn’t have a babysitter. I would get him to the gym however I could and then go back to work. That way I knew where he was. It kept him off the streets. I loved gymnastics for that reason. I knew where he was at every day.”
Whittenburg has had his mom by his side every step of the way, from Baltimore to St. Louis to Colorado Springs to – if all goes according to plan – Tokyo.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her and my family,” he said. “So I try to be as close to them as possible.”
It comes as no surprise that Sheila’s disappointment ran as deep as Donnell’s that night 10 months ago.
“I just had to tell her, ‘I know this really sucks, but there’s nothing we can do now,’” he said. “All I can do is move forward. I have to keep training and have no doubts and no regrets.”
“You have to make peace with it because you can’t change the past,” he added. “Whatever happened happened. Now I’m going to work. The thought is, ‘OK. I’m never going to let this situation happen again.’ That’s my mindset going forward. I have a plan now. I want to prepare myself to be as ready as possible.”
And ready to hear his name called in that same room in 2020.