Real Life

Louise’s inspiring comeback: ‘I’m still pinching myself!’

After learning to walk again, the equestrian’s off to Paris
Louise standing in front of her horse, with his head wrapped over her shoulderPhotos: Libby Law Photography

Louise Duncan is an optimist who looks for the good in the bad. When her fiancé Justin Duncan’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, they brought forward their wedding so Susan could be there – choosing the anniversary of Louise’s grandmother’s passing.

“We decided to make that a happy date for Nana and Justin’s mum, who passed away a month later,” explains the equestrian.

So she sees it as a positive that her grandfather Ivan Johnston learned she had been selected for the New Zealand Paralympic Team for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris days before he died last month.

“He was such a huge support – encouraging everything I did,” she tells. “I’m so grateful I was able to tell him I was going to Paris. He was so excited. His death came unexpectedly after a serious fall. Even though he was 92, it hit us really hard.”

Louise, Justin and his mother, Susan on the couple's wedding day
A special day: With Justin and his beloved mum Susan.

Louise also has happy memories of her grandfather during the most challenging time of her life – learning to walk and talk again after contracting meningococcal meningitis.

She says, “My grandfather participated in ballroom dancing. When I got out of hospital, he taught me to dance, helping with my mobility recovery.”

Louise was 17 when her arm felt stiff. The next day, she developed a rash and was vomiting. Her parents, Lloyd and Frankie Webb, rushed her to Palmerston North Hospital, where doctors started antibiotics for a range of potential conditions and performed a lumbar puncture.

“I got a hideous headache, my vision was going and I blacked out. So I was put in an induced coma.”

While unconscious for eight days, she suffered a stroke and attempts to bring her out of the coma resulted in seizures.

“The doctors didn’t think I would survive and if I did, I’d need full-time care,” she says. “My grandmother passed away three weeks prior. For a while it seemed likely I would be filling the double plot she was buried in.”

Louise riding a horse as a child, with her grandfather holding the reins
Louise and her granddad had a sweet bond.

Doctors suggested Louise move to full-time care as they were unable to bring her out of the coma. But a nurse suggested a new therapy where pets bring patients back to consciousness.

“Our Dobermann was 57 kilos,” Louise, 36, says. “My hand touched Rocco’s nose and that brought me around. After I moved from ICU, I had a picture of me riding on the wall. The doctor said, ‘You’ll be lucky if you can hold your head up or move. There’s no way you will be riding again.’

“That really hit a nerve,” she tells. “I learned to ride before I could walk as a child. So while I did have low moments, it was never a question – I was going to get back on my horse!”

Louise was in a rehab ward of Palmerston North Hospital for a year, with her parents visiting at least daily from Levin, a 45-minute drive away.

“I had to learn to walk and talk, plus relearn all my motor skills. I had no perception of depth.”

Within weeks of being home, Louise tentatively sat on top of her horse Hunniman, steeling her determination to ride again.

“For 10 years, I chose not to classify as a Para equestrian and rode in able-bodied competitions – but I got migraines and was dropping the reins, so I applied for dispensation to rise at the trot.

Louise leaning on the top of a low wall in front of her horse
Defying doctors’ predictions, Louise is riding again and is hoping to do NZ proud.

“ESNZ Para-Equestrian approached me, but I wasn’t mentally ready. I didn’t like people to think I was different. I was still that strong 17-year-old girl from before meningitis. The weakness down one side wasn’t yet there and I didn’t have balance issues, even though I spent most of the time falling over. It was only in 2017 that I got classified into Para sport.”

Louise was due to compete at Tokyo in 2020 but Covid hit and there was an equine virus killing horses.

Louise realises she is unlikely to return to her former health, but she’s grateful for her support network, including her husband of 13 years, whom she met at a barbecue.

The couple live adjacent to her parents, where she rides almost daily after work at her hairdressing business.

She could not have achieved all she has, she says, without her parents. They secretly bought the horse she will compete with – Showcase BC – and her mum is her eyes on the ground every day.

“I can be good and then I’ll get shivers, and I lose grip on my reins,” Louis explains. “I get bad migraines and severe pain at the site of my lumbar puncture.

“When I dismount, Mum or Justin have to grab me because often my legs give out. It’s about adapting and embracing my new normal.

“I try to look at the positives. I’m still pinching myself being selected for Paris. I feel so humbled.”

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