MINNEAPOLIS — If you see Donnell Whittenburg looking serious, mean even, at this weekend’s U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials, try not to take it personally, he says.

“That’s just my face,” he says. “I have a serious face.”

At 29, the Baltimore native is the oldest gymnast competing at the Target Center. Over more than a decade at the senior elite level, he’s won multiple national titles and held his own against the best at the world championships. So, coming into his third Olympic trials, he feels he’s got some things figured out.

One of the lessons Whittenburg learned about himself over the years is that he needs to be locked in to perform his best. That’s why you’ll often catch the veteran gymnast with that deep, brooding look between rotations. It’s also why he started wearing headphones during competitions again.

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“I know I get distracted somewhat easily and my mind kind of races,” the seven-time U.S. champ said. “I just want to make sure I keep it to myself and make sure I’m laser focused on what I need to do.”

Whittenburg, who left Baltimore around 2012 to train in Colorado and now lives in Milwaukee, is approaching this year’s trials with hard-earned wisdom and a fresh outlook.

Eight years ago, he was the rising star going into the Rio Games — until he wasn’t, instead traveling to Brazil as one of the U.S. team’s alternates. He came back from that experience fired up to right the wrong, and for a while he looked like he might. Then injuries relegated him to relative obscurity within the U.S. program.

After competing in three world championships from 2014 to 2017, and winning a pair of medals, Whittenburg went more than three years without another international assignment.

Through it all, though, Whittenburg never stopped competing.

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And, along the way, he started getting really good again.

On the strength of his high-powered gymnastics, Whittenburg won the vault at the 2021 Olympic trials. That led to a fourth world championships berth in the fall, followed by another U.S. title (this one on still rings) and another world championships selection in 2022.

With the U.S. team awarding bonus points in domestic meets to encourage higher-difficulty routines, suddenly the veteran Whittenburg was right back in the mix.

He comes into this year’s trials as the defending vault national champion, having won that this month in Fort Worth, Texas, as well as a veteran leader of the U.S. team.

“The maturity and leadership are the first two words that come to mind when I think of Donnell,” U.S. men’s high-performance director Brett McClure said. “He’s been able to pass down all of his experiences to the next generation coming in and just be so thoughtful and supportive of those athletes. And so I’m extremely appreciative of that.”

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The goal, of course, is finally to make the Olympic team that will compete starting next month in Paris. Though his greatest strengths are on vault, rings and floor — events that showcase his strength and explosiveness — Whittenburg continues to compete across all six apparatuses. He feels those routines should give him a shot at making the five-man team for Paris. If there’s one thing he’s learned, though, it’s not to define his success on team selection.

“I’m not going to worry about [making the team],” he said. “I just want to make sure that I go out there and have the best performance that I can put forth. That’s pretty much it. Just see how everything goes.”

Whittenburg is one of three Maryland natives competing at the gymnastics trials, joining Khoi Young of Bowie on the men’s side Thursday and Saturday. Kayla DiCello of Boyds will compete in the women’s event Friday and Sunday.

Khoi Young of Bowie may have the best shot at the Olympics among the three Marylanders at the trials in Minneapolis. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Any of them has a realistic shot at becoming Maryland’s first Olympic gymnast since Gaithersburg’s Courtney Kupets in 2004.

Young, 21, appears best positioned going in. After a breakout season in 2023 in which he won three medals at the world championships, the Stanford junior won the NCAA all-around title in April and followed with another strong performance at the U.S. championships.

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On the strength of a high-difficulty pommel horse routine and strong execution throughout, he could be plugged into a team final in any event except perhaps still rings, his coach Thom Glielmi said.

“The other five he could be used without issue,” Glielmi said.

The 20-year-old DiCello took a leave from her NCAA career at Florida to resume training with the accomplished coach Kelli Hill, who guided three previous Olympians in Dominique Dawes, Elise Ray and Kupets.

After closing out 2023 with an all-around gold medal at the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, DiCello opened 2024 with another convincing win at the Winter Cup in Louisville, Kentucky. However, uncharacteristic struggles at the Core Hydration Classic in May in Hartford, Connecticut, challenged her reputation as a consistent all-arounder.

A third-place all-around finish at nationals might have quelled that for now, though the 2021 Olympic alternate and 2021 world all-around bronze medalist will need a strong showing in Minneapolis to secure her spot in Paris.

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The women’s competition is expected to be historically strong, with four Olympic medalists and five more gymnasts who have won world championships medals among the 16 entered.

Kayla DiCello of Boyds needs a strong showing in Minneapolis to make the Olympic team. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Leading the pack is Simone Biles, who at 27 is the most decorated gymnast in the sport’s history. After pulling out of the 2021 Olympic team final citing “the twisties,” Biles returned to gymnastics last year and won an unprecedented sixth world all-around title.

Suni Lee, the 2021 Olympic all-around champion, is competing at the trials in her hometown. Among the other favorites for the U.S. team are Shilese Jones, who won two individual bronze medals at last year’s world championships, and Skye Blakely.

Any discussion on the men’s side starts with Brody Malone, a Tokyo Olympian and high bar world champion who came back from a gruesome knee injury in March 2023 to win a third U.S. title this summer.

In Malone’s absence, University of Michigan standout Fred Richard, along with Stanford teammates Young and Asher Hong — all 20 or younger at the time — propelled the U.S. to team bronze at last year’s worlds. That marked the first team medal for the U.S. men since the 2014 world championships.

For Whittenburg to make the team, he’s likely looking at the fifth spot where an event specialist could be strategically slotted into the lineup. His biggest competition might come from Stephen Nedoroscik, the 2021 world champion on pommel horse, who does only that event.

Whether or not Whittenburg makes the team, he’s at a point in life when he won’t let that outcome define him. In fact, he’s already committed to coming back again in 2025, when the International Gymnastics Federation releases its new code of points.

“I just want to see how I stack up with the new code, so that will be pretty fun,” he said.

And if the new scoring suits him, he might just stick around.

“I feel like the sport just keeps wanting me to stay,” Whittenburg said. “FIG keeps updating the code, and then I’m like, ‘Wow that benefits me. Oh cool.’”