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UFC’s Paige VanZant says she was sexually assaulted 10 years ago as a high school freshman

At age 24, Paige VanZant has gained immense popularity as a UFC fighter and as a contestant on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”

But she recently told ABC News that 10 years ago, she was a friendless high school freshman who was a victim of bullying and sexual assault.

“I felt like I was a smart girl. My parents raised me well — they raised me to know better and to have some intuition,” VanZant said. “It all went out the window just because I was so lonely, and I was in so much pain I just, all I could think about was, ‘Wow, I have somebody who wants to be my friend.’”

VanZant said the assault occurred at a party when she was 14. Afterward, she said, “I was a changed person. Through the whole thing I became a totally different person.”

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Unable to tell her parents what happened until recently, VanZant said she used to have suicidal thoughts.

“I didn’t see any other way out,” she said. “When you’re in that position, when you’re feeling that much pain, you feel like — it’s not that you want to die, you just don’t want to be in pain anymore.”

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But mixed martial arts did offer her a way out. “MMA fighting saved my life,” said VanZant, who is 7-4 as a UFC fighter. “It saved who I was as a person, too.”

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Inspired by many others who have stepped forward to share similar stories — particularly Olympic medalist Aly Raisman, one of numerous women who accused former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of repeated sexual assault — VanZant decided to detail the dark period of her own life in her new memoir, “Rise: Surviving the Fight Of My Life.”

“That’s what I needed to actually move forward with my book,” VanZant said of hearing Raisman’s story. “I really hope that if I can change one life, then me telling my story is worth it.”

charles.schilken@latimes.com

Twitter: @chewkiii

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