© John Cheng

By Jo-Ann BarnasSpecial to USA Gymnastics

ARLINGTON, Texas – His coaches believe in him. His family and friends believe in him.

And now, finally, Donnell Whittenburg believes.

Whittenburg took another step toward becoming the kind of gymnast he knows is inside of him Saturday when he finished third in the men’s all-around at the AT&T American Cup.

“I’m still a ways off,” he said. “But I feel myself getting closer.”

Oleg Verniaiev of Ukraine, who just missed winning the bronze medal at the 2014 World Championships, took first in the nine-man field with a score of 90.597 in front of 10,383 at AT&T Stadium. Ryohei Kato of Japan, World team silver medalist, took second (90.098).

Whittenburg, who held a slim lead over Verniaiev going into the final rotation, dropped to third after scoring a 14.366 on high bar. He tallied an all-around total of 89.932.

2012 Olympian Sam Mikulak – who won a World team bronze medal with Whittenburg last year in China – fought back after a slow start and took fourth with 88.598.

Vitaly Marinitch, who coaches Whittenburg, 20, at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., was direct in assessing his gymnast’s performance – and his future.

“I hope this inspires him to improve his weak events,” the coach said.

Marinitch was referring to Whittenburg’s sup-par performances on high bar and pommel horse (13.966). As for Whittenburg’s other events, he was spot on.

He opened with the best score of the day on floor exercise (15.400). After pommel horse, Whittenburg rocked his still rings routine (with the top score, a 15.500) before delivering a high-flying Dragulescu – with a minor hop – on vault for a score of 15.300, He then powered through his high bar set (15.400) before concluding the meet on high bar.

As for Whittenbugh’s potential on the international scene from here on out, Marinitch said: “If he improves those couple of events – pommel horse and high bar – he can be one of the top all-arounders in the world.”

Whittenburg, who’s in his second season on the U.S. men’s senior national team, said: “I feel as though, yeah, I can hang in there. I just need to upgrade a few things.”

Mikulak, two-time U.S. champion and winner of last year’s American Cup, said his slow start Saturday – he fell on the first two events (floor exercise and pommel horse) – was due to not putting enough pressure on himself.

“When I get the crowd behind me, that gives me a mental lift,” Mikulak said. “I needed to change. I was doing gymnastics on the first two events. I wasn’t owning my gymnastics.”

Mikulak smiled and added: “That will change. It’s all good.”