David Botana of Portland, a 2020 graduate of Casco Bay High School, is heading to Northwestern University in Chicago to study biomedical engineering. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

David Botana on horseback

David Botana rides his gray stallion Lord Locksley. Botana’s dressage team was in training for the 2020 Paralympics until the competition was postponed to next summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. Susan J Stickle photo

While some seniors might be unclear about their future, David Botana knows exactly what he wants to do after graduating from Casco Bay High School in Portland.

He plans to become a biomedical engineer and find a way to give himself a new spine.

“I realized a long time ago that I’m going to be the one to fix myself and give myself the body that I want,” Botana said. “It’s not only for me to live the life I want, but also for others to have a physically healthy body.”

Botana, who is the son of Portland Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana, was born with a rare disorder known as VACTERL association, which causes the malformation of vertebrae, heart, kidneys, limbs and other systems.

At 17, he is 4 feet, 10 inches tall as a result of severe spinal curvature that reduces his lung capacity to 50 percent. He’s also missing the radial bone in his left arm, two fingers on his left hand and one kidney.

His disabilities haven’t diminished his sense of humor.


“There are benefits to being 4-foot-10 and 80 pounds,” he said. “I can hop on anyone’s shoulders and go anywhere.”

Botana said he is grateful to his parents for their unflagging encouragement and for sharing their deep respect for education. A top student and National Merit Scholar, he plans to attend Northwestern University in Chicago, where he lived as a child and dealt with some of his early health problems.

“The majority of my really young memories were in hospitals,” he said. “I look forward to the opportunity to give back to the (medical community) that saved my life.”

Despite his disabilities, Botana is a world-class equestrian who was on track to compete this summer in the 2020 Paralympics in Japan. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, pushing the competition to next summer.

Botana began Western-style horseback riding when he was 11 and living in Indiana. After his family moved to Maine in 2017, he switched to English-style dressage and began training for the Paralympics with his stunning gray stallion, Lord Locksley.

“We have an amazing bond, but my disabilities are ever present,” Botana said. “(Success in) the Paralympics is such a strong combination of horse, team and training.”

Botana imagines the feeling he would have if he were able to create a new spine for himself and win a gold medal in the Olympics.

“It would be complete and total proof that without physical restraints, anything is possible,” he said. “I have no reason not to do what I’m setting out to do.”

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