WALNUT CREEK -- When Shirlyn Prabahar was asked to spell "alexia" at the Contra Costa County Spelling Bee on Saturday, she tried to hide her excitement.
Prabahar, an eighth-grade student at Gale Ranch Middle School in San Ramon, said she knew the word -- which describes a brain disorder marked by the inability to read or understand written language -- and she beamed with pride when she spelled it to win the 38th annual competition at Tice Valley Community Gym.
"I didn't think of its meaning, I was just focused on the word," she said. "It was hard to focus because I was fatigued; I was so tired at the end of the first round, my eyes were red."
Shirlyn won an all-expense-paid trip for two to Washington, D.C., where she will represent Contra Costa County in the National Spelling Bee scheduled May 25-31. She also received a trophy and a one-year subscription to Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.
Aaron Bruce Bantug, a seventh-grade student at Iron Horse Middle School in San Ramon, finished second and received a Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Each finalist received a trophy. The competition was limited to students in grades 3 through 8 within Contra Costa County.
The event began in the morning with a written competition, as hundreds of hand-wringing parents watched from the gym bleachers.
Students were read a word and asked to spell it on paper. They each took a shot at spelling "schadenfreude," "gazpacho," "succotash," "croquette" and dozens of other words that led some spectators to check their pocket dictionaries.
Contestants were eliminated after their fourth misspelling. After more than two hours, the field was narrowed to 10 finalists.
The final 10 then spelled words chosen at random in an oral competition. In less than an hour, eight students were knocked out on words such as "grandrelle" (two-ply yarn with contrasting colors), "cutaneous" (of or pertaining to the skin), "allonym," (an author's pen name) and "columbarium" (a vault with recessed walls where ashes of the dead are placed). Only Shirlyn and Aaron remained standing, and they went back and forth for nearly 30 minutes until Shirlyn correctly spelled "alexia." Five hours after the contest began, a new county spelling champ was crowned.
As her parents Jasmine and Prabahar Joseph embraced, the audience applauded.
"I had confidence that she knew the difficult words," her father said.
Meantime, Shirlyn and her parents will make plans to attend the national competition, which she said has been her goal all along.
"As an eighth-grader, this was my last chance to qualify for nationals in Washington, D.C.," she said. "It's a dream come true."
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.