HARTFORD, Conn. — Donnell Whittenburg is halfway to his first U.S. all-around title and one-quarter of the way to his first Olympic team.
Whittenburg, the Baltimore native with a linebacker build, posted a six-event score of 89.9 points on the first of two days of competition at the P&G Championships on Friday night. He edged three-time reigning U.S. all-around champion and 2012 Olympian Sam Mikulak by .05, with the next five gymnasts within another point.
Whittenburg was in 32nd place after the first rotation due to starting off on his weakest (yet favorite) event, pommel horse. But he followed that up with the highest score of any gymnast on any apparatus on still rings, a 15.95, and jumped past Mikulak and Jacob Dalton in the sixth and final rotation.
“There’s still more room for improvement, but, today, just glad to get through the first day with clean sets,” said Whittenburg, who earlier this year added to his tattoo collection by spending two hours getting the entire John 3:16 verse inked on his bulging left bicep.
London Olympians Dalton, John Orozco and Danell Leyva are fourth, 11th and 12th, respectively. Full standings are here.
The P&G Championships are one of two Olympic men’s selection meets, followed by the U.S. Olympic Trials in St. Louis in three weeks. The five-man Olympic team will be named after trials.
A gymnast can clinch an Olympic berth by finishing in the top two in the all-around and the top three in three of the six events in combined standings after four days of competition at the P&G Championships and Olympic Trials.
If Friday’s scores repeat Sunday and at Olympic Trials, Mikulak will automatically qualify for his second Olympic team in three weeks, and Whittenburg will undoubtedly prove he should go to Rio, too.
What a four-year journey it has been for Whittenburg, who was raised by a single mother with three siblings. He won this meet in 2012, in the junior division, that is, at age 17, after being eighth in 2011.
Whittenburg moved up to the senior ranks and finished 13th in the 2013 P&G Championships all-around. Then fourth in 2014. And second in 2015. He capped last year with his first individual World Championships medal, bronze on vault, a power event that lends itself to his musclebound explosiveness.
“He kind of showed up on the scene, like, oh man, this kid’s really good,” Dalton said. “He’s really improved. He’s cleaned things up, but just his difficulty is insane. He’s got a lot of hard skills that he makes look easy.”
Mikulak, coming back from a partially torn Achilles that kept him out 2015 Worlds, would have had the first-day lead if not for his last step of the night. He stumbled out of bounds on floor exercise.
“If I hit all my routines on Sunday, and I still lose, then so be it,” said Mikulak, who could become the fifth man to win four straight U.S. all-around titles. “As long as I’m hitting my sets, I’m a happy man.”
Orozco and Leyva, the two best U.S. gymnasts this time four years ago, could miss the five-man team for Rio if they repeat their Friday performances on Sunday and at the Olympic Trials. They didn’t seem too worried, commiserating by jokingly high-fiving after flawed performances.
“I was tired by the end of it,” said Leyva, who fell off high bar, a silver-medal event for him at the 2015 World Championships.
Orozco, who fell off the pommel horse to open his night, said he made a novice mistake earlier Friday by not eating enough.
“I’ve been taking my diet super seriously, and I thought, OK, I want to be lean and light, so I’m going to have two pieces of chicken and some asparagus,” said Orozco, who shaved his head earlier this spring and is coming back from a second torn right Achilles last year. “It got me through the warm-ups, but the minute I started competing, I jumped up on pommel [horse], and halfway through my routine I started cramping.”