The arrest and conviction of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, brought to light a problem that experts say is affecting more than 39 million Americans: sexual abuse.  But for one Olympic hopeful, it was more than just headlines.

World champion Kayla Harrison is using her weakest days to make it all the way to the top.  She's on the 2012 US Judo Olympic team and she's vying to become the first American woman to bring home an Olympic gold medal in Judo this summer.

But for three years, she lived with a secret.  She was sexually abused by her former coach when she was 13 years old.

“I didn’t know what to do, what to expect or what to say,” explains Harrison.

An investigation by ABC's "20/20" revealed 36 swimming coaches were banned by USA swimming for allegations of sexual misconduct.  Last year Don Peters, who coached the 1984 US Olympic gymnastics team, resigned amid allegations of sexual abuse.

“It’s no longer a secret that just happens behind closed doors,” says Dr. Debra Day, a licensed psychologist.

Day says often young girls are groomed into a sexual relationship before they even realize they are involved in it.

"They become distorted in what they believe is happening,” says Day.

Harrison says she thought she was in love.

“In my mind it was a full blown relationship.  I was brainwashed.”

Experts say often a power paradigm is involved.  Predators will start to make the victims feel like they are more special than their peers.

“I spent every minute with Daniel and he was really good at making me feel like he was the only one I needed,” says Harrison.

The National Council of Youth Sports has been trying to find the best way to screen coaches for at least a decade.  And the US Olympic Committee also announced it would centralize and standardize background check programs across all 32 Olympic sports.  But Day says parents can help by looking for unexplained behavioral changes in their child and asking questions.

Harrison did what most victims can't do.  She pressed charges and faced her abuser in court back in 2008.  Daniel Doyle was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison and banned from Judo for life.

“He turned around and he said ‘I love you’ and then I never saw him again,” says Harrison.

She turned her dark days into a positive, ranking second in the world.

“Although it feels like you are in a prison and you can’t get out, you can and there is help out there and there are people who care,” she says.

And she's taking that new found strength all the way to London. 

“I’m mentally tougher than anyone I know and that’s why I’m going to win the Olympics,” says Harrison.

Additional Information:

A CHAMPION IN THE MAKING:  A two-time National Champion before she was 18. Harrison, who moved up from 63kg to 78kg in 2008, won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Judo that year, but was unable to compete at the Games as Team USA had not qualified the division. In 2009, Harrison became the second U.S. Athlete ever to compete in two Junior World finals where she won a silver medal. Harrison made her mark on the senior international level in 2010 when she became the first U.S. woman to win a world championship in 26 years, going undefeated in five matches to win gold. (Source: Kaylaharrison.com)

LIES AND SPORTS:  Research shows that sexual abuse happens in all sports and at all levels. From beginning youth sports programs, across school, community and university settings, even to Olympic elite athletes. As a psychological experience, the abuse of power and authority by the predator renders the young athlete powerless. First, a cycle of dependency is created between the predator and the child, involving special attention and friendship. Predators look to build a bond of loyalty, and then move to isolate and control the athlete. This specialness descends into sexual attention, where intimidation, guilt, secrecy and further dependency are manipulated. Sometimes the abuse occurs with threats and violence, sometimes with deception or even with misdirected love. By the time the child wants to - or wishes - to disclose the nature of the sexual trauma, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness secures their silence. (SOURCE: psychologytoday.com)

CATCHING IT EARLY - TIPS FOR PARENTS:

  • Communicate honestly and openly with your child. Encourage your child to keep no secrets from you.
  • When involving your child in sports, ensure the organization and coaches have gone through criminal checks, child abuse registry etc.
  • Be present at practices and games so you can observe the interaction between your child and his or her coach.
  • Be wary of coaches who tell you things about your child that in your heart you know are not true.
  • If your child discloses that something inappropriate has occurred, reassure and support them. 
  • Call the authorities and seek professional help immediately. (SOURCE: psychologytoday.com)