“Jesus is my first love and Taekwondo is my passion!”
Standing at just 4 feet 11 inches tall, 67 year old Franciscan sister Linda Sim is a martial arts world champion.
Last month, the nun, who is a fifth-Dan black belt holder became the first Singaporean to win a gold medal in the World Taekwondo ‘Poomsae’ Championships that took place in South Korea.
Unlike many other martial arts, Poomsae requires the athlete to fight against an imaginary opponent. Sister Linda, who joined the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood 43-years-ago, beat six other contestants in her age category to become the world champion among those over 65.
David Koh, the acting president of the Singapore Taekwondo Foundation (STF) told the media “The Singapore Taekwondo Federation is very proud of her. She is also a shining example to our young-at-heart Singaporeans that sports is for everyone.”
From the Singaporean Army to ‘God’s Army’
Linda wanted to join Singapore’s military. “I went to the armed forces, but at that time, there was no field service for women – only clerical duties.” So, she did a rethink and decided to aim for the police.
“I thought if I learned a martial art, I could join the police force, but I did not have the height or the weight,” she said. “I tried to grow – but I could not!”
Linda Sim took up Taekwondo in 1971. She enrolled in a Taekwondo class in a local church – and never looked back. Today, she wears a 5th Dan black belt, is a certified Singaporean referee for both Kyorugi and Poomsae, and has 32 competitive medals.
“Ever since I was a child, as far back as I can remember, something in me longed for martial arts,” she says. “I have always been petite and small in stature, so I wanted to learn something so that I don’t have to carry a weapon – I wanted to be the weapon!”
And then … she encountered Sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood. She saw a different kind of service. “I thought, ‘Why not join God’s army? If that is not service – what is?” she asked.
Joining the order, she readily accepted a life of poverty, chastity and obedience.
As a Franciscan missionary, she had a 17-year stint in England to work in a convent, and three years working as an administrator in a hospital in Zimbabwe. 15 years ago, she returned to Singapore to work with children suffering from cancer .
The STF was teaching taekwondo to children fighting cancer in the Assisi hospital run by the FMDM Singapore. Soon, Sister Linda was getting coached by the STF herself, to help her in her teaching.
One thing led to another and she realized that she wasn’t too old to take the sport to a higher level, and ended up competing in South Korea.
“After I saw gray-haired ladies compete, I thought I wanted to train to represent Singapore as I’m very proud to be Singaporean,” she says.
Although Sr. Linda is busy coordinating the mission work of the FMDM sisters in Singapore, she also has devoted some time to taking part in 25 international competitions, notching up an impressive 30 medals.
Tough Nun to Crack!
On winning the World Championship, Sr. Linda shared:
“I felt on top of the world as I have reached a major milestone in my taekwondo journey. I felt great as this is the first time Singapore has won a gold medal and I also felt a great sense of gratitude to God.”
The world champ had to train three times a week in the run up to her latest competition, and although she has some aches and pains from wear and tear, she insists that “age is not an issue for me.”
What use is a martial art to a Catholic nun?
“It has always been a contradiction,” she admitted, “People say, ‘What has Taekwondo got to do with a Sister?’” She has the answer.
“For me, there is only one spirit, whether it is the Christian spirit or the Taekwondo spirit – it is a universal spirit,” she said. “Values matter: Love! Peace! Respect! Harmony! Unity!”
Her Taekwondo training also helped in her early religious years as she adapted to an austere life.
“My Taekwondo training before I became a sister instilled values of disciple, love, service and respect,” she said. “This helped me throughout my religious formation years, which were difficult.”
Sister Linda and the Pope
In 2018, Sister Linda Sim was invited to join the World Taekwondo delegation visit to the Vatican. During the audience, as the Pope walked by the Taekwondo group, a selfie was taken, but the diminutive Singaporean was not in it.
Sister Linda made a snap decision to go off-script.
“I thought, ‘This will not do!’ So, I jumped up from the seats and grabbed his hand,” she said – even though she knew that the Pope is not a fan of that behaviour. “I said, “Father! I am a Franciscan Sister! Give me a blessing – please!”
Apparently surprised but charmed by this unusual package – a small but gutsy Singaporean nun, attired in the uniform of a bona fide Taekwondo master – the Pope assented.
“I kissed his hand and said, ‘Could we have a picture?’” she recalls.
Again, Pope Francis assented. Shutters clicked.
Images taken on the day show his bodyguards frowning – “They were appalled, flabbergasted,” laughs the nun – but the Pope himself grinning next to a radiant Sister Sim.
Sister Linda’s Taekwondo is a gift she has given to others in places such as Singapore’s Mount Alvernia Hospital and the Assisi Hospice.
In 2007, she started teaching Taekwondo to institutionalized children with cancer. “There were 10-15 children and they were just playing computer games and board games, so we thought, ‘Why not teach them something physical?’” she said.
Some of the students became so good that they won titles in national-level competition. But of course, there were losses – losses far graver than any failure to mount the medal podium.
“The cancer took three of them,” Sim said.
But there were wins, too.
“One is now 30, he has a brain tumor and cannot walk and cannot hear, but he was expected to die at 12,” Sim said. “I have two more who are partially blind and deaf, but one is working in a hotel. These are cancer warriors!”
In person, Sim is bubbly, talkative, energetic and vivacious. Her role, like that of the rest of her order, is about being among humankind.
“Evangelism should be at the periphery,” she says. “It is about being among God’s people in the world.”
“There are people who never go to church or see religion as part of their life, but there are human universal values that unite us, and Taekwondo allows me to speak that common language, to connect to people,” says Sister Linda. “It is a spirituality – where there is passion, there is life.”
WITH INPUTS FROM VARIOUS MEDIA SOURCES