'He's remarkable': How Kenny Gajewski tamed his stuttering to become face of OSU softball

Scott Wright

STILLWATER — Kenny Gajewski was in his element on the grass playground of his elementary school in fifth grade. 

He was playing a sport during recess — though he can’t recall which one these many years later. Probably soccer or baseball. Regardless, he was comfortable.

“I got called out of recess to go to speech,” Gajewski said. “That was the moment I knew there was something wrong.”

Gajewski has a speech impediment. He stutters. But it wasn’t until that day in fifth grade that he realized he was different.

“I can remember being pulled off the playground, and it was embarrassing, because everybody knew who the speech teacher was,” Gajewski said. “I’m sure there were whispers and everything, but that’s just the self-conscious part of what you go through. 

“When you’re that age, I think it’s a way bigger deal.”

Gajewski mostly remains in his element these days, swapping school playgrounds for softball fields. As the head coach of the Oklahoma State softball program, however, he regularly finds himself in uncomfortable situations, holding weekly media conferences and appearing on radio or television.

Head coach Kenny Gajewski has overcome his difficulty with stuttering to become the face of the Oklahoma State softball program.

'Best person for the job'

Beginning at 6 p.m. Friday, his seventh-ranked Cowgirls will host a series against No. 1 Oklahoma in Stillwater, with all three games set to be broadcast on the ESPN family of networks.

At some point, probably more than once, Gajewski will end up with a headset on, speaking to the college softball world as the face of the OSU program.

He will stutter. But he won’t let it take away from what he has to say about his team.

That idea is similar to the message he wanted to convey about himself when he interviewed for the job in 2015.

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Athletic director Mike Holder picked up Gajewski at the airport in Oklahoma City and as they drove to Stillwater, Holder set the tone for the interview — whether he knew it or not.

“I heard you stutter,” Holder said.

“Yeah, I do,” Gajewski replied.

“Doesn’t bother me,” Holder said.

And the issue was immediately off the table. Gajewski could focus on what he was saying, rather than worry about how he was saying it. 

“It put me in a spot of relief and comfort,” Gajewski said. “Anybody that has any type of speech impediment or disability, however that is classified or perceived, the one thing you’re always worried about is what they think instead of just being able to have a conversation. 

“You’re concerned with how you sound or how you look or how you feel and it’s probably not even real, but it’s what you put on yourself. When he told me to just be myself, and that he just wants to hire the best person for this job, it put me at a point of relief and comfort. I was able to sit back in the seat and go, ‘I’m gonna nail this,’ because he gave me the ability to be free, and that was a huge deal.”

OSU softball coach Kenny Gajewski, now 49 years old, can control his speech much better than in his younger days.

Kenny Gajewski on being a role model for others who stutter

Now 49 years old, Gajewski can control his speech much better than in his younger days.

“Sometimes I have to slow down,” he said. “Sometimes I have to really think through the way I’m going to speak. But it’s not going away.”

Regardless of his speech impediment — or perhaps in spite of it — he has become a highly successful college softball coach. And that has given him a platform to try to help others.

“He’s always willing to help students and talk about his stuttering,” said Nancy Payne, who is now retired, but worked at OSU as a supervisor and instructor in the department of communication sciences and disorders.

“It’s invaluable. I’m a person who stutters, and when I was growing up, I knew no one who stuttered. To those who are persons who stutter, his presence gives them a role model and someone they can really look up to.”

Gajewski found professional success, so perhaps they can, too.

“So many times, if you’re a person who stutters, you feel you won’t be able to get a job and you won’t be able to talk on the phone and you won’t be able to communicate effectively,” Payne said. “Communication is a basic need, and if you feel like you can’t communicate well, it really affects the person.”

OSU has a graduate program in speech pathology, as well as a support group for those with stuttering difficulties. Gajewski has been a guest speaker for both, though his opportunities to do so have been limited in the last year because of the pandemic. 

“I can’t even begin to tell you what he has done for people,” Payne said. “He’s remarkable in every way.”

Mackenzie Thomas, a former Cowgirl catcher who is graduating from OSU this week with a Master’s degree in speech language pathology, remembers the first time she spoke to Gajewski.

OSU coach Kenny Gajewski, Florida coach Tim Walton and OU coach Patty Gasso talk following press conference before the 2019 Women's College World Series.

'You have to struggle through and fight through'

She was a catcher at McNeese State, looking to transfer, and he was recruiting her to OSU.

“My first conversation with him was over the phone, and that was the first time that I knew that he stuttered,” Thomas said. “I really didn’t think much about it at first, because I didn’t know much about stuttering.

“But now that I’m in this profession, I have a great appreciation for him as a stutterer.”

Thomas saw first-hand how Gajewski handled his stuttering when he spoke to the team or to the media. 

“My sophomore year, when I began studying speech language pathology, that’s when I really began to understand the impact it had on his everyday life,” Thomas said. “I noticed the way that he handled it. Like any person who stutters, he has good days and bad days. 

“People who stutter have to deal with a major psychological component in addition to the actual stutter. So all these people who stutter have to deal with these psychological thoughts and the way they feel about themselves and the negative emotion. And that’s one thing I can say that Coach G handles with excellence. He controls the psychological aspect like nobody I’ve ever seen.”

And Gajewski knows the work it took for him to get to the point he’s at now. That’s why he wants to help, and why he wants others who stutter to hear the story of his journey.

“Everything I’ve done throughout my whole life has prepared me for being OK with who I am, but it hasn’t always been like that,” Gajewski said. “You have to struggle through and fight through to get to that point.”

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When Gajewski was young, and the world wasn’t as sensitive to such issues, he pushed back against the help he was offered, because he felt like he was being singled out from his peers. 

Sports became a safe space, because he was a talented athlete. 

“It was miserable to try to date, to ask girls out, to do a lot of things,” Gajewski said. “When it came to sports, nobody cared that I stuttered, because they wanted me on their team.”

Once Gajewski learned to view his stuttering as an obstacle to be overcome, rather than a limitation to where he could go, he learned to navigate the psychological aspects of stuttering.

“I love to talk,” Gajewski said. “I love to talk about our program and what we do, and I don’t even think about it now. 

“There’s a real internal struggle inside for people that we just don’t know about. My stuttering is not bad. It’s on the low end. There are people that cannot speak. I’ve had those moments when nothing will come out and it’s miserable. 

“I just hope I can help somebody understand where I’m at now through my experience.”


Game 1: 6 p.m. Friday, ESPN+

Game 2: 3 p.m. Saturday, ESPN

Game 3: 11 a.m. Sunday, ESPNU