Donnell Whittenburg
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Donnell Whittenburg leads bunched crowd at P&G Championships

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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 conclude Sunday (1-4 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Live Extra), after the U.S. women compete in the Secret Classic in Hartford on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, Live Extra).

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.”

MORE: Biles, Douglas ease into Olympic qualifying meets

Nathan Chen, Simone Biles, U.S. women’s soccer team win Team USA Awards

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Simone Biles was named female athlete of the year and Nathan Chen took the corresponding award for men Tuesday at the Team USA Awards in Los Angeles.

Six-time Olympic swimming champion Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, who has taken up wheelchair CrossFit competition since an ATV accident in 2014 left her paralyzed from the waist down, took the Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award. She works to help other people with spinal cord injuries through the Amy Van Dyken Foundation and Amy’s Army, which has launched a Wheels for Kids program to help injured children find wheelchairs that may not be covered by insurance.

The show also included a medal ceremony in which the teammates and family of the late Steven Holcomb received silver medals that were reallocated after doping infractions changed the results of the 2014 Olympic bobsled competition.

MORE: Holcomb’s legacy lives on 

Award winners from the ceremony:

Female Olympic athlete of the year: Simone Biles, gymnastics 

Biles took a one-year break after winning four gold medals and a bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics, then came back to do even better, unleashing new skills on the balance beam and in the floor exercise. This year, she won five gold medals at the world championships, breaking the record for career medals.

Female Paralympic athlete of the year: Oksana Masters, Para Nordic skiing and Para cycling 

Already an eight-time Paralympic medalist in Nordic skiing, biathlon and rowing, Masters had a breakout year in cycling, taking silver medals in the world championships. In Nordic skiing, Masters took five world championships (three cross-country, two biathlon) and the overall World Cup championship in sitting cross-country along with a second-place overall finish in biathlon.

Male Olympic athlete of the year: Nathan Chen, figure skating 

Chen had a double back-to-back year, winning his second straight world championship and his second straight Grand Prix final. He also started his 2019-20 season by winning both of his Grand Prix events. He and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu are far ahead of any other skaters in posted scores this season.

Male Paralympic athlete of the year: Ben Thompson, Para archery 

Thompson took the world championship and the No. 1 ranking in the men’s compound event and led the U.S. to a world record in the team compound event.

Olympic team of the year: U.S. women’s soccer team 

The team claimed the sport’s biggest prize for the second straight time, working its way through a difficult field that included a quarterfinal matchup with host France to win the World Cup once again, adding to its previous wins in 1991, 1999 and 2015.

Paralympic team of the year: U.S. sled hockey team 

Like the women’s soccer team, the sled hockey team went unbeaten in the world championships and claimed a fourth world title.

MORE: Golden goal clinches championship

Olympic coach of the year: KiSik Lee, archery 

This year, Brady Ellison won a world title and set a world record in the Pan Am Games, and Ellison teamed with Casey Kaufhold to win the world title in the mixed team event, which will be on the Olympic program in 2020.

Paralympic coach of the year: Wesley Johnson, paratriathlon 

The founder and head coach of Balanced Art Multisport in Salt Lake City, Johnson is the personal coach of three top-10 paratriathletes, and he served as an assistant coach in the world championships, where three of the athletes he coached won silver medals.

NBC will have highlights of the show at 2 p.m. ET Dec. 22.

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Hanyu, Zagitova control their Grand Prix Final destiny at NHK Trophy; TV, live stream schedule

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In order to qualify for the Grand Prix Final — after missing the event the past two seasons for varying reasons — two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu needs to finish inside the top four at NHK Trophy, the sixth and last remaining Grand Prix series event. Hanyu competes on home ice in Japan this weekend, and the event is streaming live for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.

A full breakdown of Grand Prix Final-clinching scenarios can be found here.

Hanyu won the Grand Prix Final four straight times (2013-16). The prestigious December event would be the first time this season Hanyu and two-time Grand Prix Final champion Nathan Chen would compete head-to-head, outside the world championships in March.

Hanyu trains in Toronto alongside American Jason Brown, who will also be competing in Japan. Brown clinches a spot in the Grand Prix Final if he earns a silver or better, but is also very likely in if he earns a bronze medal.

Reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova of Russia is in a similar situation this weekend at NHK Trophy, needing to finish on the podium to clinch a berth in the Final. She faces Moscow-based training partner Alena Kostornaia (who needs to finish fifth or better to make the Final) and Japan’s Rika Kihira (must earn a medal of any color), among others such as 2019 European champion Sofia Samodurova of Russia and 2017 U.S. national champion Karen Chen.

MORE: Alina Zagitova focused on artistry, while other Russians push technical boundaries

Three teams in the pairs’ field at NHK Trophy can earn spots in the Grand Prix Final. Two-time world pair champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China and Russia’s Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov need a medal of any color to clinch, while Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro need silver to clinch, but could win with a bronze and a high score. See the breakdown here for details.

In ice dance, four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France are favorites at NHK Trophy. They have appeared in three Grand Prix Finals and own a medal of each color, including a win at their most recent appearance in 2017. (The duo withdrew from a regular-series Grand Prix event last season and were unable to qualify for the Final.)

The most likely NHK Trophy scenario is that Papadakis and Cizeron win NHK Trophy, and Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin finish second – and if that happens, Papadakis and Cizeron, Stepanova and Bukin and Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates (currently on the cusp of an entry) all make the Final.

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

NHK Trophy Broadcast Schedule

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Thursday 10:30 p.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Friday 12 a.m. Pairs’ Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
10 p.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Saturday 12:30 a.m. Pairs’ Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Sunday 4 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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