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Donnell Whittenburg, still chasing an Olympic spot, in hunt at nationals

Behind an impressive showing on the vault, Baltimore native Donnell Whittenburg moved into third in the men's all-around at the U.S. championships Thursday night in Tampa. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

TAMPA — Donnell Whittenburg had planned to be done with gymnastics by now. He thought so last year, and it didn’t matter whether he earned a spot on the Olympic team. His career probably would end after the world championships that fall. At least that’s what he said.

Yet here he is a year later, on his 28th birthday, still competing and chasing his Olympic goal. In the field at the U.S. national championships that includes three returning Olympians, the Baltimore native is trying to make a case for why he belongs on U.S. teams at major international competitions. And if you ask him now, Whittenburg won’t offer any guesses about an end date for his senior elite career that began nearly a decade ago.

What changed?

“I still feel like I'm missing something,” said Whittenburg, a four-time worlds team member but never more than an alternate for the Olympics. “And that's literally the one thing. I've done just about everything you could possibly do in this sport, except going to the Olympic Games.”

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After the first of two nights of competition at the U.S. championships at Amalie Arena, Whittenburg is in third place with a total of 84.774 — far behind the all-around leader, Brody Malone of Stanford (88.942). Malone, a Tokyo Olympian and the defending national champion, has a comfortable lead over Asher Hong, an 18-year-old rising star, who’s in second with an 85.480, but Whittenburg managed to stay ahead of Olympians Shane Wiskus (84.423) and Yul Moldauer (84.276) in the standings.

They’re all eying the worlds team — and the Paris Games just two years away — and Whittenburg delivered performances on vault and rings that put him squarely in the mix.

When asked whether he could boost a U.S. squad on that stage, Whittenburg said after Thursday’s competition: “Absolutely. No doubt in my mind. We need rings, and we need vault. Those are my events.”

Two falls on floor brought down Whittenburg’s total, but he earned the top score on rings (15.422). He also showcased one of the most difficult vaults in the world, a roundoff entry onto the table and then, after propelling off the apparatus with his hands, two flips with a full twist.

Beyond crowning national champions, this competition also determines which athletes advance to the world championships selection camp. The all-around winner automatically earns a spot on the worlds team, and so does the second-place finisher as long as he places in the top three on two apparatuses. The other members of the five-man team will be named after the camp, and the world championships in October present the U.S. men’s team an opportunity to return to the medal podium for the first time since 2014, particularly with Russia’s absence because of the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Top team-score scenarios are considered when building a worlds team, using the marks from nationals and the selection camp, so a high all-around score isn’t the only determining factor for a gymnast with Whittenburg’s strengths. A key for him is showing that his best events — vault, floor and rings — could help the team in a final, in which three athletes compete on each apparatus. He excelled on two of those events Thursday but struggled on floor.

The Americans have slipped behind the top teams in the world because their routines lack the difficulty of the top teams. With scores calculated by combining difficulty and execution marks, easier routines cap a gymnast’s maximum total. To improve difficulty, the U.S. program instituted an aggressive bonus system this year that rewards harder routines with additional points.

For Whittenburg, this system means a massive boost on vault, which Thursday was his final apparatus of the evening. He stood in 12th place entering the rotation but surged ahead after his first vault scored a 16.380, including 1.780 in bonus — a huge lift in a sport in which a fall deducts one point and gymnasts are often separated by tenths. (Gymnasts vying for vault medals must perform two different vaults, and the scores are averaged, but for those who did so at nationals, only the first attempts factors into the all-around score. In team competitions, gymnasts only perform one vault.) With a 6.0 difficulty score on rings, Whittenburg earned an extra 0.522 in bonus to grab the lead on that apparatus.

“At the end of the day, we’re not going to be using [the bonus system] internationally, so it doesn’t really matter,” Whittenburg said of the initiative in place at domestic meets. “Yes, it helps me here, but I’m just trying to go out, compete internationally because I know I can put up big scores out there, just as well as here.”

Hong, the young standout with similar strengths as Whittenburg, performed the same, difficult first vault and outscored the veteran with a 16.630 — and then he added a second vault that was harder than Whittenburg’s. Hong had low scores on pommel horse and high bar but received a massive boost on his best events.

Competing at his first nationals as a senior-level gymnast, Hong said: “I’ve had a good amount of experience with international competitions, so I don’t get too nervous anymore.”

Whittenburg, who trains in Wisconsin, has competed at the world championships four times, placing third in 2014 with the team in his debut on that stage. He returned to worlds the following year and won another bronze, this time on vault. Whittenburg represented the United States again in 2017 and 2021, but both of those editions of the event didn’t include a team competition, because that’s the norm for the world championships that follow the Olympics. He didn’t win any medals, but he still has those other two. An Olympic berth is the missing piece.

“As long as I’m healthy and I have the will to keep going,” he said, “why not?”