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Whittenburg finding voice, embracing leadership role within Team USA
posted on 10/28/2022

© John Cheng

When Donnell Whittenburg takes the World Championships stage for the fifth time next week in Liverpool, he'll be the oldest and most-experienced gymnast on the U.S. roster. At 28, he may be writing the most enduring chapter of his gymnastics journey.

So far this year, 'Don Don,' as he is affectionately known to teammates, has shown some of the best - and most consistent - gymnastics of his career. After collecting all-around bronze at the U.S. Classic in July, Whittenburg delivered a second-place all-around finish and claimed his third still rings national title at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in August. The performance earned him an automatic team berth for the 2022 Artistic Gymnastics World Championships and set him up for a September World Challenge Cup appearance in Paris where Whittenburg collected bronze medals on parallel bars and still rings competing against some of the sport's biggest names.

In Liverpool, he is the veteran leader of a U.S. men's squad aiming for a top-three finish, which would ensure a team berth for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Men's qualifications are set for Monday, October 31. The U.S. will compete with Subdivision 1, beginning at 5:30 a.m. ET.

We caught up with Whittenburg at the Men's World Team Selection camp earlier this month in Colorado Springs. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

You've had an impressive 2022 to date. What's stood out to you this season that sets it apart from years past?
What really stood out to me this season is my level of maturity and most of all just how consistent I've been able to be throughout this whole year. That's one thing that's really stood out to me and something that I'm very proud of thus far this season and hope to keep it going.

How do you build on those experiences heading into World Championships?
Just keep trying to do the best I can to be as consistent as I can with my training and have that translate towards the competitions. If I can just keep making everything more familiar and have that same rhythm, Liverpool is just going to be like any other competition. The preparation should be the same going in, as long as I keep the same attitude and same level head going in there. I want to compete like it's a normal [competition], so that's the plan.

© John Cheng
It's a new quad with a new FIG Code of Points. How does that affect how you prepare?
There wasn't that much I needed to change because the Code of Points kind of worked in my favor with what I was doing. For me personally, I play toward my strengths and try to really build upon that with start value. On some of my weaker events, I try to go for execution as best as possible. Trying to combine those two together, it kind of balances itself out.

What are your expectations for the U.S. going into Liverpool? Japan and China will be competing, and Great Britain will be in front of a home crowd. What do you want to see from this team?
What I want to see from our guys heading into Liverpool is to go out there and hit routines. Our main competition is going to be Great Britain whether we think about it or not. We're going to be bumping heads with each other because that's how it's kind of been for a long time. We're very similar in strengths, so it's going to come down to who can hit sets clean that day. At the end of the day, if you do your job, you can't really be mad about any performance.

Does Russia's absence change anything for you heading into the event?
Russia not being there changes the urgency because this is the best shot we have to try to make the Olympics as a team [in 2022]. Our goal is to try to get third place [or better] so we can set ourselves up for the upcoming Paris Games. As long as we do our job, we should be good, but having Russia not [compete] puts us in a better position to make that accomplishment.

There are a lot of up-and-coming guys in the program, including a couple of rookies on the World Championships team. Can you talk about the group dynamic and the veteran leadership you bring?
With the dynamic of this group, it feels pretty cool, because I remember when I was the young guy in 2014 popping up on the scene. All of the seniors kind of took me under their wings and really tried to help me understand what it took to get to that next level. Having my experience, I feel like I can pass along that same knowledge and help the guys just feel comfortable competing because they put in the work. They've just got to go out there and do their thing, so my job is to help them feel as comfortable as possible and stress free about competing on those big stages.

You and Marvin Kimble were training partners before he retired in 2021. What has training this year without him been like? Do you still stay in touch?
After he retired, I was basically by myself, but honestly, it's been fine. I've kind of figured out that I train better by myself because I have less distractions, which is not to say he was a distraction. It was good having him there, but usually, when I'm by myself, I'm in the gym for two hours max. I go in, do what I need to do, and then leave. But I still talk to Marv and try to keep up as much as possible. We usually play NBA 2K together. He's also coaching women's gymnastics, so he has a busy schedule as well. We both have our different lives, but we still try to find time to communicate.


You went to Germany earlier this year to compete in a gymnastics league setting. What was that experience like?
I went to Germany for a Bundesliga competition and am most likely going to go back after World Championships. I think I was there for two weeks total. It definitely helped me get a head start on the season. It was great to be able to go in there and compete against different club teams because they all bring in international athletes as well. I saw Adem [Asil] there for one of the competitions. I also competed with Ferhat [Arican], so it was good to see my international friends on the scene and still compete at a high level even though it was a club team competition. I'm definitely grateful for the experience because it's helped a lot in my preparation.

You continue to be an active voice for equality. Can you talk about your activism and what it means to have a platform that you can use to reach others?
When you have a platform like mine, I feel like you kind of have a purpose to spread awareness and show people that it's okay to speak up for what you believe in. At the end of the day, it's your life. You only get one, so why not try to impact as many people as possible in a positive way. That's what I try to do and inspire as many of the youth as I can.

Are there experiences from your past that have motivated you to use your voice in this way?
Especially in my early years of being on National Team, it felt like there was this standard that you had to follow. I felt like I really couldn't be myself. Looking back on it now, I really didn't have a voice then because I was too worried about what might happen if I spoke up. Now, I'm at the end of my career where it doesn't matter. I've accomplished a lot. I could walk away right now and be happy. It's more about just being absolutely true to myself, and letting other people know that they have a voice no matter what.

Creating inclusive and welcoming environments where athletes feel valued is a huge priority for USA Gymnastics. Have you felt progress being made, and if not, what would you like to see change?
The changes are coming. It's going to take time for everyone to really get on board with what's actually going on and what we're actually trying to do. It has to start from within. Once everybody is on the same page and gets the whole picture, then I feel like we'll start seeing some bigger changes.

Are there athletes you looked up to when you were coming up in the sport?
Growing up, I was really fascinated by gymnasts from China. Probably my favorite gymnast ever was Li Xiaoping because of how insane he was and what a dominant athlete he was. Looking at his routines, I told myself I would never do that, and then I ended up actually doing the majority of the stuff that he's done. It's kind of funny looking at that kind of gymnastics growing up and doubting yourself a little bit, then getting older and realizing I've started to dig deeper in the gym now and am actually trying this stuff. He was definitely one of my big role models and pushed me to do what I do now.

© John Cheng
You've been a visible figure at the highest level of this sport for a long time. What does it mean to be in the position to inspire the next generation of athletes?
For a long time, I've been such a shy person. I've kind of shied away from the spotlight, but with the platform I have, you kind of have a duty. You want to make sure that you're representing not only yourself but the people that look up to you. They want what's best for you, and you want to be able to give back as much as possible to them. Being that face [that athletes can look up to and see themselves] is such a humbling experience that I don't take for granted. I want to make sure that I put that positive impact on their lives the way they do on mine.

We're less than two years from the 2024 Olympic Games. You've secured your spot on this year's World Championships team. What's next as you work toward the goal of competing for the U.S. in Paris?
I've got to do it again. After this year, everything resets. I'm just going to focus on being as consistent as possible and keep trying to make these World Championships teams because you want to make sure your face is still out there being seen and the [selection] committee is still looking at you as an asset they can rely on at any point in time. That's why I keep coming back to consistency. I just want to show everybody that when it really matters, you can count on me to give a strong performance in the moment.

We've talked a lot about Donnell Whittenburg the athlete. How do you like to spend your time away from the gym?
During summertime or when it's warm, usually I'll go to the beach or go for a walk. Last summer, I was playing tennis a little bit with my girlfriend. I like outdoor sports. Flipping sides to winter, that's a little tough, especially in Wisconsin. My girlfriend does want to try hot yoga. I didn't want to try it ahead of [World team selection] camp, but I'll probably try it when I get back. I do read a solid amount. I do that as much as possible. I also do crypto trading. I like to geek out and look at how the markets are doing. Just trying to expand my horizons.

What do you think fans would find surprising to know about you?
I don't know if this will really surprise people, but I used to play drums. I would like to get back on it because my friend is in a band right now. He's way better than me now. We used to play together when we were younger, and now he's more established and legit and just left me behind.