words aaron guillen
photos max huang
Michael Lim made a name for himself as a well-known Filipino Jiu-jitsu competitor before he was diagnosed with a disease that attacked his spine and shattered his dreams of ever becoming World Champion. Today, Michael battles for new dreams, co-founding a health business in the Philippines, while studying in BCIT’s Marketing Management Entrepreneur Option. Though Michael’s disease knocked him to the ground, it won’t stop him from getting up and taking his life back into his own hands.
How did you first get involved with martial arts?
When I was three years old, my dad let my brother and I watch UFC. We saw people beat each other up, and it was crazy. From that moment on, I really wanted to get into that. At 5, I joined Taekwondo. At 6, I was using stakes and machetes. At 9, I was doing mixed martial arts like boxing, kickboxing, muay thai, judo, and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. By the time I was 11, I started competing internationally.
How much focus and determination does it take to compete internationally?
When I was competing back then, it was my only priority. My dream was to become the Jiu-jitsu World Champion and have a black belt. I wanted to be the person everyone looked up to. I reached pretty high in the Philippines; I made a name for myself and my twin brother. When I was 11, I won my first international gold medal. You have to be obsessed to win medals.
Tell me about your disease.
In 2012, I started feeling pain in my hips and left side of my lower back. It kept getting worse while I was training, but I ignored it. In 2014, my pain went away and that year was the best run of my career. In early 2015, it came back, but on my right side. The pain made me miserable; I couldn’t even walk or sleep well. At times, I was paralyzed with pain. Within that timeframe, I saw specialists, spine surgeons, and physiotherapists who couldn’t figure out what was going on. They said it was from a previous injury, misaligned hips, or a pinched nerve. In October 2017, I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), an autoimmune disease that is slowly fusing my spine together. The doctors recommended that I have a drug administered to me each month, but it suppresses my immune system. I decided not to choose that option, but instead go with a low-starch diet which made me really thin.
What does AS feel like?
Imagine someone had a knife and they stabbed you repeatedly. Your muscles feel like they’re being electrocuted every time you move. It’s a pain beyond words.
How did you feel when you found out?
I spent almost five years trying to find out what was going on with me in the first place, so when I found out, I was sort of relieved. At the same time though, I was destroyed inside. All this time I had some hope remaining that I would recover and win the World Championship title. When the doctor diagnosed me, it felt like he confirmed that I was going to suffer like this for the rest of my life. People who have AS tend to live shorter lives.
How do you treat your AS now?
When I was on my low-starch diet, I could count the things I could eat on one hand. I found that this diet only suppressed my symptoms, so I stopped doing it. I follow a life coach that has had AS before and is helping people with AS to get better. He explained how people like us have gone through childhood trauma and were obsessive. These things have built up negative emotions in my unconscious mind and my mind thought it was destructive, so it gave me physical symptoms to distract from these pent-up emotions. Medical doctors won’t believe this, but I believe that I’m recovering from self-psychotherapy. As soon as you figure out those emotions in your life and deal with them, you can start to feel the difference. I believe with all my heart it’s helping me to get better. I made this up, you know? It’s your body destroying itself. Life is normal now without Jiu-jitsu and I feel optimistic that I’ll be back to 100% one day.
What made you move to Vancouver?
My uncle was a successful business man and he went to BCIT. I came here under the intention of training to participate in Jiu-jitsu competitions in the States. Looking back, I realize that I was running away from a life I didn’t want to live. There were a lot of expectations that I couldn’t satisfy.s
What were those expectations?
I have a twin brother and he was doing very well in Jiu-jitsu as well. I felt like I couldn’t keep up with him. I grew up always being compared to him. Everywhere I went, I would be identified by my gold medals and titles. It’s all anyone talked about and I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to fully admit that, but now I’m more true to myself.
Tell us about your business.
It’s called Limitless Fitness and Martial Arts. I helped build the foundation of the company and my twin brother runs it in Davao, Philippines. Many of our customers are gold medalists, international champions, and others are there for recreational purposes.
I chased medals and glory and relied on those for happiness. Now I know that I can be something, even though I have nothing.
What’s the toughest part about being an entrepreneur?
Just getting yourself out there. You have to think if you’re really going to commit yourself to a project. It’s essentially just having tolerance for ambiguity. Right now, I’m putting myself out there and maybe I’m in the process of failing, but I haven’t been there yet.
You’re a member of BCIT’s Enactus club. Why did you join?
I joined when I found out I was diagnosed. I felt like I’ve been living my life too selfishly, and I think it’s time to give back. I’m involved in two projects; one of them educates refugees to help them get jobs and into post secondary institutions, and the other is a plastic waste recycling initiative.
Have you moved on from Jiu-jitsu?
I’ve realized that it doesn’t have to be me anymore. I focused on it so much and it was everything. I chased medals and glory and relied on those for happiness. Now I know that I can be something, even though I have nothing.
Where do you hope to be in five years?
A person that is independent and 100% committed to a business. I want to give back to the community in some way, especially to people who have suffered from AS.