© John Cheng

By Nick McCarvel

Ask Donnell Whittenburg three things to describe him and he’s quick out of the blocks: Shy, determined and always willing to work hard.

The 21-year-old Baltimore native has been a fast-rising star in U.S. men’s gymnastics the last two years, and this weekend competes alongside Sam Mikulak in the AT&T American Cup in Newark, which kicks off the FIG World Cup calendar for 2016.

Whittenburg has vaulted himself into the international gymnastics conversation as fast as anyone: He helped the U.S. to a team bronze at the World Championships in 2014, finished second last year at the P&G Championships behind the always-solid Mikulak and was a bronze medalist on the vault in Glasgow at Worlds, as well, his first individual medal at that level.

For a little kid from Baltimore who started doing handstands in the backyard, he’s come a long, long way.

“When I was younger I was always goofing around on my hands and my mom got pretty scared for me,” Whittenburg told USA Gymnastics in a phone interview. “She didn’t want me to hurt myself, so she sent me to a local gym where I did a couple classes. One day one of the kids on the competitive team saw me do a standing back tuck. ‘This kid can do a back tuck!’ The coach had me try out for the team, and that was that.”

His former coach at Rebounders Gymnastics, Abdul Mammeri, remembers seeing Whittenburg, too, and eyed a special young boy who he saw plenty of potential in. Mammeri took Whittenburg under his wing, convincing his mom, Sheila Brown, to continue to send Donnell to lessons even as money was tight for the single mother of four.

“Me and my mom were struggling financially and he was the one who always helped to make sure I was in the gym no matter what,” recalled Whittenburg, who is now 21. “He wanted us to do the best we could with payments, but he just wanted me there and competing.”

He trained under Mammeri, who he described as a father figure, for ten years, then made the move to the U.S. Olympic Training Center at the age of 18, just three years ago. He is also a member of Team Hilton.

Mammeri said it was important for him to keep Whittenburg engaged at the gym, always challenging him with new tricks and skills.

“As a coach, you don’t know what a kid is going to turn out to be,” Mammeri said. “I’ve had some very talented kids, but they’ve dropped out for soccer or baseball or swimming. I saw the potential in Donnell, but I was always afraid he wasn’t going to be able to continue. When he was 11, he went to Nationals for the time and that’s when he realized he could be best in the nation. He started to realize his potential.”

Whittenburg wants to continue to realize that potential this weekend in Newark, as well as throughout the 2016 season with a culmination at the Rio Olympics. He has upgraded his high bar and pommel horse routines and is focusing on one thing overall: Consistency.

“My main goal is to hit all of my sets the best I can,” Whittenburg said. “My difficulty isn’t up to par with the best in the world, so I have to be consistent as possible.”

Whittenburg now trains under Vitaly Marinitch in Colorado Springs and has grown in leaps and bounds as far as experience goes. For a kid who wasn’t even a part of the London Olympic conversation, he’s now a leading contender to be on the Rio team.

“He’s growing as a competitor, having won a medal on the vault last year at Worlds,” said Marinitch. “That was a confidence booster. If he’s healthy, he’s could be the top guy in the U.S. He’s on his way to getting better and hopefully he peaks at the right time. He’s been doing great in the gym and working hard.”

Whittenburg has a close relationship with his family, which remains in the Baltimore area. He has two nieces and a nephew, and his older niece, a 12 year old, is constantly texting him with check-ins and encouragement.

“She pretty much texts me every day,” Whittenburg laughed. “She is congratulating me or whatever … It’s great to see my niece trying to be there for me.”

Much like Mammeri was there for Whittenburg when he needed him, too.

“His mom did really good with him,” said Mammeri of Brown. “She did everything she could, and then she trusted me with the gymnastics. She kept him there. The last time I talked to her she thanked me for all of that, but to me, it was just her bringing Donnell to the gym. It was teamwork.”

Donnell has no idea where he would be in his life if it wasn’t for Mammeri, his mom and the gym, either.

“That’s a tough one,” he answered. “I grew up in not the greatest area for school. Gymnastics took me out of that bad environment. If it wasn’t for gymnastics, my life wouldn’t be like it is. It’s a blessing. I have this sport and it took away a lot of negativity. I was so ready to go to gymnastics every day after school.”

And, it appears, he’s still ready for it every day even still.