Donnell Whittenburg DeVry University

The difference a team makes: Support fuels success for Team USA gymnast

By DeVry University

21-year-old Donnell Whittenburg has been working toward his dream of making the U.S. Olympic team since he was kid in Baltimore, practicing gymnastics, even when the other kids didn’t understand the attraction.

Being teased by his peers could have deterred him, but instead, it was an early lesson about the value of the support provided by his family and coaches. And it’s a lesson that continues on his journey as an elite athlete pursuing greatness, and a college student pursuing a degree.

Donnell’s support network has grown along with his aspirations, beginning with his mother and sisters. Since then, his high school coach, Team USA teammates, and trainers at the U.S. Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs have all played key roles.

Now, as a DeVry University sponsored athlete, he also relies on support from DeVry University as part of his extended “team,” helping him realize that he – like all of DeVry’s hardworking, ambitious students – can achieve his highest goals. From the first planning sessions with an enrollment advisor, through personal connections with professors and the career services professionals, DeVry knows students can truly thrive with dedicated staff and faculty in their corner.


Selected as an alternate for the U.S. Men’s Artistic Gymnastics team going to Rio this summer, and working to complete his degree, Donnell has learned he can be both a world-class athlete and a successful student. Especially with friends, family and faculty as his biggest fans.

“My mother and my old coach from back home sacrificed so much for me to get to this point. They were definitely looking out for my best interests in gymnastics and school as well.”

The sacrifices are sincerely appreciated. Donnell makes special note of his mother’s giving nature and strength as a single mom, raising three kids, working as a social worker, and caring for his older sister who is blind and deaf.

“My mom had to sacrifice time, money, all the stuff that she may have wanted to do…. Also my sisters and my family – for them to sacrifice so much and for me to be here at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, achieving my dreams…it’s an awesome thing they did for me.”



When asked what success means to him, Donnell answers, “When you’ve put all of your time and effort into something that you really care about and it ends up becoming a reality.” As he continues to make success a reality, he also points out, he doesn’t do it alone. He’s surrounded by people and mentors who care.

“Having a team behind me has made me a better gymnast because I know these guys have my back, no matter what. I remember when our team had a rough day, and my teammate Eddie Penev told me to ‘Let go of the outcome. Focus on the now and leave everything on the floor.”

That’s been an important lesson for Donnell who was not chosen as one of the 5-man gymnastics team roster for the 2016 Olympic Games, but an alternate instead. “I’m still pretty happy. I get to travel with these guys and be able to support them, and I still have a role to play.”

As an alternate, full-time training is still required; Donnell needs to be ready should something happen to another gymnast. Being enrolled in his online degree program at DeVry is helping him make his schedules work.

“With DeVry I can juggle everything better. It has also really helped me to get the one-on-one time with professors… I know they’re working with me so I can be the best student I can possibly be.”

Whether it’s a meaningful connection with a professor or a teammate who picks him up after a disappointment, that kind of support that propels Donnell to the next level. That, and his mom, who watches his competitions from across the world. “She motivates me. If I made a mistake on something, my mom will call and say ‘I saw that you fell in that event,’ and I’ll tell her yeah, I’m in the gym working on it!”

While Donnell is wise not to focus solely on the outcomes, he is preparing for the many possibilities of tomorrow. At DeVry, we couldn’t be prouder to support him.

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