How Donnell Whittenburg Prepares For A Season With No Regrets
How Donnell Whittenburg Prepares For A Season With No Regrets
Veteran gymnast Donnell Whittenburg plans to go big for the 2021 season. How will he do it? Just ask Donnell.
In an environment where one is constantly being judged and evaluated, Donnell Whittenburg chooses to never let one meet define him or his season.
Fans saw Whittenburg compete most recently at Winter Cup. After a fall on parallel bars on day one and falling twice on pommel horse at event finals, he placed second on rings, tied for fourth on floor, and took 11th all-around. “For me, my expectation was honestly just to hit all of my sets, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case there,” he told us. For a seasoned veteran like Whittenburg, he’s aware that competitions don’t always go as planned but how you respond to it is what really matters.
On top of not competing for a year or so, Winter Cup built a reputation for being a pre-season competition. There are falls and fails but Whittenburg finds no reason to get discouraged. Getting back into the gym is top of mind. Focusing on upgrades and consistency, he added, “I just need to get more endurance, try to get some more reps in, just try to get a competition feel inside my gym...just need to stay the course.”
Back in September 2020, he moved from the Olympic Training Center to train at Salto Gymnastics in Wisconsin, where he is now coached by Anthony Ingrelli. Ingrelli believes this is a nice change of pace and scenery for Whittenburg after being at the OTC for so long. After training with other 20-year-olds for years, now Whittenburg is surrounded by kids who are training alongside him at Salto that look up to him every day, motivating and humbling him on his journey to Tokyo.
As for what upgrades viewers can hope to see soon, Whittenburg is setting the bar high. “Everything I’ve done at Winter Cup, those routines will be upgraded, so definitely expect that,” he said. Ingrelli added, “We're trying to upgrade and put in one more skill on every event, which would be one of the highest start values...we're going to try to upgrade his vault back to what he was doing in 2017, 2018, where he's doing the full in. And then everywhere else is just one skill that would upgrade probably about four-tenths of the start value for every event.”
Those skills would be a double Arabian half out on floor, a Tanaka on parallel bars, and a straight Tkatchev half on high bar. Depending on consistency, they are looking to add a triple pike at the end of his high bar routine as well. “Whether he's at Pan Ams or U.S. Championships, those are the routines that he's going to need to do if he wants to be competitive for making the U.S. team...we're going to be throwing our highest start value routines and pretty much just going for it,” Ingrelli shared.
This season Whittenburg is going big because he has huge goals, saying, “My goal for the season is to go to championships, get back on the national team if possible, and just keep the ball rolling. Just try to hit as many sets as I can, try to be as consistent as possible, and pretty much just leave everything on the floor and not leave any stones unturned.” Ingrelli adds that he’d love to be part of the six-man team the U.S. is sending to the Pan American Championships, which is the same weekend as the U.S. Championships, so either competition would be great to attend to gain more experience before trials after a year with no meets.
Whittenburg knows what it’s like to be left unsatisfied after an Olympic run, as he was named an alternate to the Olympic team back in 2016. He’s determined to not let that happen this quad, especially after an extra year of training. “I don’t want to settle for anything less than making the team this time around. I’ve experienced being the alternate, I watched my team compete, and you know, it’s just that bittersweetness, you want to be out there representing your country, being on the floor with the best in the world,” he shared.
Though being an Olympic alternate is a huge accomplishment, he’s clear that he has his sights set higher this time around, and that the experience has fueled his fire to push for more. “My goal is to get on the team, I mean, that’s what I trained my butt off for this whole quad, and I feel like I’ve shown that many years and years out, so that’s my expectation for myself.”
“I really do think he brings a lot to the team with having international success, as opposed to some of other guys that we've had, or [who] just haven't even been able to get out internationally because of COVID I think this year, he has an advantage there that hopefully we can put together at Pan Ams or U.S. championships and do well at trials enough to get him selected to that team,” Ingrelli added.
At 26, he’s older than some of the other men he competes with, but he’s not ready to give up yet if he doesn’t reach his goals this season. Retirement isn’t even on his mind, saying, “It just depends on how this year plays out, my ultimate goal is to make the Olympic team, so I just want to keep that on my mind first, and then whatever happens after that I’ll think about that after. Right now, just having my goals set on getting my start values back, getting more consistent, and then just going out there and competing, leaving everything out there.”
Ingrelli believes that there is most certainly an advantage to Whittenburg’s age and that’s experience and wisdom. Collaborating on training plans together is much easier for the pair because Whittenburg has nearly “every skill in the book.” After years of training for a multitude of routine construction options, his self-awareness is so keen. He knows when not to push it too far, preventing himself from injury. With experience behind him, his ability to stay competitive and composed in high-stress situations is what sets him apart.
Training alongside him at Salto Gymnastics in Wisconsin is another elite gymnast, Marvin Kimble. Their friendship goes all the way back to when Whittenburg made the junior team and they’re very close, helping push each other in the gym.
“I feel like we definitely feed off each other’s energy. He’s kind of more of a hype man than I am, but I feel like when he’s around me,” Whittenburg shared. “I show a little bit more passion and expression, and I feel like we definitely mesh well together. We have our different events and I feel like us being together, we can definitely try to coach each other on certain events that we might be struggling on or have different strengths on, so it’s a good mesh for us and we try to push each other as best as we can each and every day,” he shared.
As much as Whittenburg appreciates Kimble’s friendship and strategy, the feeling is mutual, Ingrelli says. “Having both of them there helps push each other. It's hard to train by yourself, you know, I think Marvin has been doing that for a long time...they keep each other loose while still motivating each other.”
Whittenburg is also located near Chellsie Memmel, and since their gyms are in close proximity he’s visited M&M to train on the rod floor, as we got to see in one of Memmel’s recent videos.
Though the pandemic has been one factor on Whittenburg’s mind this past year, the heightened focus on racial injustice in the United States is another one. This season, Whittenburg has worn Black Lives Matter and Say Their Names masks to competitions and in media conferences, a statement that’s been noticed by viewers. “I just want to spread awareness because obviously this is still an issue in the world that needs to change, and I feel like for myself as a Black gymnast that I need to be more vocal and just speak upon these matters and let people know that there is a problem here and that we need to make some sort of change because this is not about me, this is about the future.”
He’s spoken out previously about what it’s like to be a Black gymnast in the U.S., noting that Black gymnasts can be treated differently than other races on the same team.
“I’m just trying to do my part to make sure that people, the kids behind me can feel as though they’re in a safe place and are able to go out and do whatever they want instead of kind of hiding in fear that we won’t be able to do whatever they want because of that. I just want to be that focal point to show young kids that hey, it doesn’t matter what background you come from, if you want to do something, go ahead and do it, and don’t let anyone stop you,” he shared.
As we observed at Winter Cup, diversity is increasing at the elite level in women’s gymnastics, likely stemming from what some are calling “the Simone and Gabby effect:” that having representation at the highest level of the sport encourages young gymnasts to not only join the sport but continue in it, assuring young gymnasts of color that this is a place that they belong. Akash Modi shared similar sentiments about being an Indian gymnast and having the opportunity to be a role model for a new generation of Indian gymnasts to come.
Whittenburg hopes to be a positive role model for young Black gymnasts in the sport, especially on the men’s side. Noticing that many NCAA teams this year are hosting Black Lives Matter meets, kneeling for the national anthem, or wearing Black Lives Matter leos, he would like to see more awareness in elite gymnastics as well.
“Someone just needs to make a stand, honestly, because as we’ve been seeing, in the college world it’s definitely out there. We have a ton of great Black gymnasts that are doing college gymnastics, but oh so few at the elite level, so I feel as though it’s my duty to step in and show that awareness, which I most likely am going to be doing at the next championships coming up.”
We’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for Whittenburg at Championships or Pan Ams not only for his actions to bring awareness to racial injustices in the world but also for his gymnastics, where he will continue to bring his ‘go big or go home’ season mentality.
“[He] really just is focused on whatever his objective is at that time, he’s just focused on it and it's hard to get him off of it. He’s just a one-track kind of mind,” Ingrelli shared. This season’s focus? The Olympic Games.
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