Photo of Richmond triathlete Quy Pham with his family.

The death of a beloved triathlete while swimming stuns Richmond

Richmond triathlete Quy Pham died during the swim portion of the Robious Landing Triathlon in late June. His death was ruled an accidental drowning. 

The 35-year-old Pham was a devoted family man who loved his wife and two children. He was a trusted bartender at Richmond’s renowned Mekong restaurant, well-known for his smile and big heart.

The Robious Landing Triathlon, organized by Go To Eleven Racing, features a swim downstream in the James River for 650 meters followed by an 18-mile cycling ride and a 5K run.

Dave Pearson, a volunteer photographer for the event, was walking down the trail looking for a location to take pictures of the swimmers in the James River, when he heard calls for help in the distance. Of the rescue effort, Pearson says, “Timewise, I was impressed with how fast they got there.”

Triathlete Ron McLeod was lined up with his wave, ready to go into the water, when he heard the calls. “I was in the third wave,” recalls McLeod. “They relayed a swimmer was in distress. The communications from the race director was on point. They said what they needed to say and didn’t say more to cause distress. Everyone understood the gravity of the situation.” 

At that point, the race directors made the decision to cancel the swim and let the rescuers do their job.

The outpouring of grief was immediate and immense when a devastated community found out he had died.

“We were deeply saddened and shocked with the loss of our fellow triathlete, Quy Pham, and our hearts go out to his family and friends,” said Lilo Navales, an Ironman triathlete and Richmond Triathlon Club officer. “His passing has left a big hole in our tight triathlon family here in Virginia.” 

“If you measure life by loving, and those loved, few stand taller than our friend Quy,” wrote David Hunsaker, in one of the hundreds of social media messages, from all across the world, paying tribute to the beloved athlete.

“I was at the race…where Quy lost his life in our river…I didn’t know him, but I know that I missed out on knowing a wonderful person in every aspect of his life,” wrote triathlete Diane Johnson. “I am deeply saddened at the thought of his family and friends having to endure this loss.”

Richmond triathlete Michael Harlow, owner of Endorphin Fitness, added these thoughts: “As athletes standing on the edge of the water for our next open water swim, how do we process this loss? First off, we recognize how fortunate we are to have another day to enjoy life and sport. Life here on earth is precious yet temporary, and we should live each day in recognition of this….I write this with the greatest sympathy for the Pham family. They have been in my prayers.”

Harlow is encouraging the community to consider donating to a fund set up to care for Pham’s wife and children: https://www.gofundme.com/f/phamily

The Richmond Triathlon Club, which contributed a sizable donation, is also urging the community to support Pham’s family. “We look out for one another,” says President Jeff Moore.

Earlier this year on the Virginia Capital Trail, Quy Pham joined his cycling friend Stephen Salpukas along with other cyclists for “The Tour de Quy.”

 “More social than serious, this ride brought his friends together,” recalls Salpulkas. “Quy’s busy schedule included working long hours, spending time with his family and attending church. So this gorgeous day ride, scattered with long and short conversations that we got riding side-by-side, was special to me and his friends.”  

When they returned to Triple Crossing for pizza and beers, Salpulkas tried to order a sour beer that was apparently sold out. “Quy got up from the table, and minutes later, he appeared with a big smile and the “sold out” beer for us to enjoy.  He just wanted everybody around him to be happy.“

A week after the triathlon, cars filled the parking lot of Church of the Vietnamese Martyrs, as family and friends gathered to say goodbye to Pham. John Reinhold was among those there to remember his friend. “He would light up when talking about his family and kids. He would also light up when talking about biking and outdoors.”

Only a few miles away, directly south of the church, across the James River, a palpable reverence could also be felt in the quiet of Robious Landing Park.

Pham’s friends say there are signs that remind them he’s nearby—a rainbow that appeared over Mekong recently, and his bicycle now hangs on the wall inside the restaurant. 

Is triathlon swimming safe?

All open water swims pose a risk. Quy Pham’s death has some triathlete participants discussing possible ways to improve safety. Suggestions being discussed include:

• Mandatory open swim training prior to the event for new triathletes

• Emergency flotation devices attached to swimmers

• Special color caps just for newer swimmers that are easier to spot 

• The last swim wave reserved for novice open water swimmers (instead of waves organized by age group, for example).

When asked about possible safety improvements, USA Triathlon, the national governing body for triathlon events, released the following statement: “USA Triathlon is currently working with Go To Eleven Racing, organizers of the Robious Landing Triathlon, to collect more information about this incident.”

USA Triathlon swim safety requirements include minimum numbers of certified lifeguards and swim safety assets to observe, support and respond to situations during the swim portion of the race.

As part of the sanctioning process, race directors must submit course maps and confirm that they have an appropriate emergency response plan and necessary services, a safety director, a water testing agency and a police contact. 

Lilo Navales was a volunteer kayaker during the Robious Landing Triathlon swim, and she observed five other volunteer kayakers, two SUP safety paddlers, and water safety patrol monitoring the swimmers. “I feel it was very safe coverage for the race,” she says.     

A certified triathlon coach, Michael Harlow offered his thoughts about triathlon safety: “As a fellow race director and coach, I know how difficult it is to ensure the complete safety of every participant in an event. The Robious Landing Triathlon race director in my opinion did everything within reason to ensure a safe event.

“Swimming in the open water is very different than the pool. Visibility is limited. You will have many other competitors in close proximity to you—oftentimes touching you—throughout the event. All of these factors make it essential that you prepare by swimming in the open water frequently before the race. with a coach, friend, or training group.”