"He was the kind of person who knew how to make you trust him," Rachael Denhollander tells PEOPLE

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March 29, 2017 02:14 PM

Former club gymnast Rachael Denhollander will never forget the five one-hour sessions she spent with former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar at his Michigan State clinic in East Lansing in 2000.

She was 15 years old and being treated by then-renowned doctor for a wrist and back stress injury.

“I liked him when I met him,” Denhollander, now 32, tells PEOPLE. “He was warm and caring, very gregarious and outgoing. He made you feel like he was going to take care of you — like everything would be all right.”

“He was the kind of person who knew how to make you trust him.”

That trust was broken when Nassar allegedly inserted his fingers into her vagina and rectum for 30 minutes at a time, without using a glove. And the high schooler’s mother was in the room.

“He would position himself in between my mom and I, so I could not see where his hands were,” says Denhollander, who trained at a gym in her Kalamazoo, Michigan, hometown. “That was the dynamic that kept me quiet because I didn’t realize she couldn’t see.”

“The idea that someone could be sexually assaulting me for 30 minutes at a time while holding a conversation with my mother, nobody thinks that’s what assault looks like.”

The experience haunted Denhollander, who didn’t think anyone would believe her if she came forward with claims of abuse, for 16 years.

For more on the USA Gymnastics scandal, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

But in August 2016, inspired by the IndyStar report exposing allegations of widespread sexual abuse by USAG coaches across the country, Denhollander filed a criminal complaint against Nassar. Dozens of victims have since followed suit and Denhollander is preparing to face Nassar, who is currently in federal custody on separate child pornography charges, in court in May. Nassar has pleaded not guilty and denies any wrongdoing.

“The ability to trust anyone again and to trust that people are what they appear to be is gone,” she says. “The sexual abuse touched every aspect of my life, but you can’t stop living life.”

In a statement to PEOPLE, USAG says they were unaware of Nassar’s years of alleged abuse prior to the summer of 2015 when he left the organization.

“USA Gymnastics is appalled that anyone would exploit a young athlete or child in the manner alleged. We are grateful to the athletes who brought their concerns about Dr. Nassar to USA Gymnastics in the summer of 2015, which led USA Gymnastics to report Dr. Nassar to the FBI and remove him from any further assignments,” the organization said. “USA Gymnastics did not know about Dr. Nassar’s alleged conduct prior to the summer of 2015.” 

And MSU spokesperson Jason Cody tells PEOPLE: “As soon as these allegations were made known to police near the end of August, we devoted significant resources to investigating this case. We have SVU detectives who have been working nonstop in reviewing complaints and have come in to theme and working hard with state attorney generals to build criminal cases against Nassar.”

Courtesy Rachael Denhollander

Denhollander is sharing her story publicly in hopes that she can help other sexual assault victims.

“It’s actually counterproductive to healing, but the best way to give others hope is by letting them know they aren’t alone,” she says. “And that requires a name and a face.”

As the former athlete prepares to see Nassar in court, she is hopeful for justice, finally.

“It’s difficult to see how many other women are coming forward,” she says of the more than 80 women or girls suing MSU, Nassar or USA Gymnastics. “While this process has been extremely painful, it’s worth it. There is hope and there is healing in the near future.”

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