World Rowing Championships: Callum Dixon on severe dyslexia

Callum Dixon rowing, smiling as he looks directly at the camera
Callum Dixon made his international rowing debut in 2022

World Rowing Championships

Venue: Belgrade, Serbia Dates: 3-10 September

Coverage: Watch live finals on Saturday (12:00-14:35 BST) and Sunday (12:00-14:10 BST) on BBC iPlayer, Red Button, BBC Sport website & app, with highlights on Sunday on BBC Two (16:00-17:00 BST)

It has long been said that sport is a great leveller - an escape from reality, the arena in which differences are put aside in pursuit of one common goal.

It is certainly the case for Callum Dixon. In sport, he says, "nobody's going to ask me to do something that I think I can't do".

In so-called "real life", his severe dyslexia means he can only read about 25 words. He cannot read a book, or a menu in a restaurant, or differentiate between toilet doors that say 'men' or 'women'.

But what he can do is row - and the Olympics are in his sights.

Dixon, now 23, was around eight years old when he noticed he could not do the things his peers could with apparent ease.

The alphabet never stuck. "I remember never quite understanding what even it was, struggling to say the names of the letters. It was such a hurdle," he tells BBC Sport.

"I couldn't understand why I couldn't get it at any level. At maybe age 12, 14, you wonder if it's going to happen at any time? Why hasn't this happened?"

Growing up in the Mile End area of east London, Dixon and his three siblings were home educated. In the afternoons and evenings, he took part in every 'after school' club, sports team or Scouts group he could squeeze in.

He did attend school for a very short period of time, and recalls struggling to read his teachers' questions written on the board.

"I understand that just knowing what the question is shouldn't be the difficult part," he says. "The difficult part should be answering the question.

"I remember starting to travel on my own, using the Tube. The difficult part probably shouldn't be reading the station you need to get off at, trying to memorise every stop on a certain line so you knew what was coming and where you were."

Today, Dixon still relies heavily on the support of others, in particular his parents. They help him pay his bills, and fill out forms, and his mum played a huge part in him being awarded a degree in psychology through the Open University.

"She read everything, and wrote all my answers," he says. "She read every single word of my degree with me."

He fears what the future will hold, what he will do when he has to "self-sustain" and has to get a "real" job after his athletic career. "It still feels so unattainable, that is going to be such a big hurdle," he says.

But for now, he has sport - and "the best job in the world".

Tom Barras, Matt Haywood, George Bourne and Callum Dixon competing at a rowing World Cup
In July, Dixon (far right, in the bow seat) and his crewmates won silver at the World Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland

Dixon started out as a sailor, joining his local club as a child before progressing up the ranks and joining the British team in 2016.

A member of the under-23 squad, he was set for a successful future in the Finn class, one that likely would have included becoming an Olympian - a dream he had held since being captivated by London 2012.

But when in 2018 World Sailing announced it was dropping the Finn - a class dominated by Britain's Sir Ben Ainslie and Giles Scott at recent Games - from the Olympic programme from Paris 2024 onwards, Dixon had to change sports if he was to make his dream a reality.

Enter rowing, suggested to him by Scott as his brother, Nick, was head of performance at British Rowing at the time. Fast forward to 2022 and Dixon was making his World Cup debut as a rower.

Dixon's height means he suits rowing, but it is a sport that also suits him because "it is all numbers", not words.

"We do like doing the same things every day. We get our programme and I just need to know how far I'm going today," he says.

Earlier this year, he was selected in the men's quadruple sculls for the European Championships, finishing fourth, and it is in the quad that he will again line up at the World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, this week.

It is a competition that brings added incentive. Dixon and his crewmates George Bourne, Matt Haywood and Tom Barras have the chance to qualify the British boat for next year's Olympics, with seven quota places up for grabs.

"I'm very excited. I think this one is a bit more special because it's qualification as well, so it's got an added layer of excitement and nerves," says Dixon.

"I definitely feel the extra pressure. You build throughout an Olympiad, this isn't the end goal for sure, the end goal is Paris but it's a big stepping stone in making Paris a reality.

"Going to the Olympics would be pretty special. That's something that has been a dream for almost as long as I can remember.

"For it to actually happen, I don't quite know how I would feel but I am excited."