U.S. gymnast enjoys a first in international competition

Gymnast Donnell Whitenburg enjoyed competing at AT&T Stadium: “It was definitely cool.”
Gymnast Donnell Whitenburg enjoyed competing at AT&T Stadium: “It was definitely cool.” Star-Telegram

Sam Mikulak might have overshadowed Donnell Whittenburg entering the AT&T American Cup, but he didn’t when it was over.

Armed with power and finesse, Whittenburg finished third in the prestigious event in front of the area’s biggest gymnastics fans at AT&T Stadium. Mikulak, the 2014 AT&T American Cup winner and the only other American competitor in the nine-men field, finished fourth.

“I just wanted to hit all my sets the best I could,” Whittenburg said. “I definitely did that. Pommel horse was a little shaky, but it was a good performance on my part.”

It was the first time Whittenburg finished ahead of Mikulak in international competition. Whittenburg had topped Mikulak in World Cup preliminaries in 2014.

Whittenburg, 20, led the competition until Oleg Verniaiev, from Ukraine, scored a meet-best 15.9 on parallel bars. Verniaiev is the reigning world champion on parallel bars. Verniaiev won the all-around with a 90.597. Japan’s Ryohei Kato was second (90.098).

Whittenburg finished the day with the event he wanted to start with, the high bar. He scored a 14.366 with only a 6.2 difficulty score.

“[The high bar] is a little bit of a struggle right now,” Whittenburg said. “I’m trying to get the difficulty where I believe it needs to be.”

One of Whittenburg’s loudest cheerleaders on high bar was Mikulak. Mikulak had “uncharacteristic” stumbles on the floor and pommel horse but bounced back.

“I started having more fun,” said the 22-year-old Mikulak, who is scheduled to graduate from Michigan in May. “That’s when things started to turn around. I pumped up the crowd, and that gave me the energy.”

The reigning two-time U.S. champion, Mikulak suffered a knee injury when he hit the parallel bars before the Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas in February, but he said it didn’t affect his performance Saturday.

Whittenburg, who finished third at the Winter Cup Challenge, started strong with a meet-best 15.4 in the floor exercise. The Baltimore native also scored a meet-best 15.500 on the rings and a second-place 15.300 on vault. Whittenburg hadn’t performed Saturday’s vault since the DTB Team Challenge in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2013.

The venue quickly became the talking point for the second straight day. AT&T Stadium hosted the Nastia Liukin Cup on Friday, and the two-day gymnastics showcase totaled 13,609 fans. It was the events’ second highest two-day total attendance since Madison Square Garden was host in 2012.

“It was definitely cool,” Whittenburg said. “On p-bars, I saw myself on the big screen. I told myself, ‘Try not to look at it.’”

Even with a successful day, Whittenburg had to work hard to get the crowd’s biggest cheers. Simone Biles, the women’s all-around winner, was the immediate fan favorite, especially after a 16.033 on vault, the day’s highest score.

“They screamed her name all day,” Whittenburg said. “It was kind of expected.”

Mikulak wants a similar energy when he competes next.

“The first two events I wasn’t putting on a show,” Mikulak said. “The next four, I did. I’m just proud Don-Don [Donnell] was able to go out and do well after my mistakes.”

Verniaiev’s victory helped him become the World Cup Series winner with a five-figure cash price.

Only participants who have competed in all three FIG all-around World Cup events (World Cups in Stuttgart and Glasgow and Saturday’s AT&T Cup Series) are eligible.