A longtime and admired bartender for Mekong Restaurant in Henrico County was identified Monday as the person who apparently drowned Sunday while participating in the swimming portion of the Robious Landing Triathlon.
The body of Quy P. Pham, 35, of Henrico, was recovered about 2 p.m. after another swimmer reported he appeared to be in distress before disappearing in the James River, said Lt. Lauren Hummel, spokeswoman for Henrico police.
Pham was one of the participants in the event involving swimming, biking and running that was sponsored by Go To Eleven Racing and originated out of Robious Landing Park in the 3800 block of James River Road. Chesterfield County police and Powhatan County authorities were assisting in the triathlon, but Henrico police are investigating Pham’s death because his body was recovered in a portion of the river that is in Henrico.
His cause of death has not been determined, but authorities believe he drowned.
The swimming portion of the event began at 7 a.m. and was scheduled to have five waves of swimmers, but was stopped after Pham, who was in the first wave, disappeared in the water. Two waves of swimmers had begun the 650-meter race before organizers halted it.
The 18.8-mile bike and 5-kilometer run portions proceeded after the swim was canceled. A total of 255 contestants finished those parts of the event, according to the organization’s website.
“At triathlons, there are a number of kayakers and powerboats for the safety of the swimmers,” said John Clarke, a Richmond Times-Dispatch page designer who was there as a participant but did not continue after Pham disappeared underwater. “There was a kayaker who noticed Quy was in difficulty and was close by him.”
The second wave of swimmers went out at 7:05 a.m., which was about the same time that word got back to the swim start that a water rescue was underway, Clarke said. Those swimmers were held up about midway, near the spot where it appeared the search for Pham was occurring, he said.
Those swimmers were then released to complete their swim as the search continued, said Clarke, who was to be in the third wave of swimmers. Race director Andy Moser then announced again that a water rescue was underway, and about 10 minutes later the swim portion of the race was called off before any other waves of swimmers started, Clarke said.
Organizers of the triathlon could not be reached on Monday.
Pham, a naturalized citizen from Vietnam, had been a bartender at Mekong for more than a decade and was well-known and highly regarded among the restaurant’s regular clientele. He was married with two small children, both girls.
Pham became best friends with one of the restaurant’s regulars, Tyler Kidd, and the two men would often travel together in search of exotic beers.
“He was my very best friend,” Kidd said in a telephone interview. “We got to be friends like a lot people got to be friends with Quy — at Mekong. He worked for at least the last 13 years, and he and I just got to be close friends. We traveled internationally and across the country together, mainly to go to try some far-fetched rare beer. So we’ve been to San Francisco; Portland, Oregon — and we went to Belgium twice — really just for beer and companionship.”
“He was really interesting, a really great guy,” Kidd said.
Kidd said he believes Sunday’s triathlon was Pham’s first, although he had worked very hard in recent years to become physically fit. He swam and bicycled regularly.
“He hadn’t always been so dedicated to fitness until a couple of years ago,” Kidd said. “He was running then, and then he started swimming. He’d swim almost every day at the Y.”
“And then he really got serious into cycling — I’d say about a year go, and got himself in really, really good shape,” Kidd added. “The last time I talked to him — I think was Thursday night — and he wasn’t worried about the swim or the bike. He was worried about the run, because he hadn’t been running as much. Which really makes it even harder to take — he was a really good swimmer and somehow something bad happened to him.”
Pham would keep close tabs on his friends and regular customers as if they were family members.
“If I didn’t go in there ... and missed about a week without telling him I was out of town or something, I’d get a text from him,” Kidd noted. “And one of the things that is not as well-known about him was that he was amazingly inquisitive about politics and the laws of this country. So much so that if I went in there without watching the day’s news, I felt very unprepared about the questions that he would toss out at me.”
“He was incredibly interested in the way this country worked,” having not been born here.
Another regular, Ed Christina, who lives within walking distance of the restaurant, said Pham was like part of his family because of his friendly and helpful demeanor.
“He would always be glad to see you ... and he just made you feel like you were going to a friend’s house and hanging out,” said Christina, who has been going to the restaurant for 20 years. “He had like a goofy sense of humor. He used to tease people. He would like give my wife a beer and then wouldn’t tell what it was and make her guess. He would say, tell me what you think it is. He’d do that to people.”
Christina said Mekong is “like the hub for all the beer nerds in Richmond” and it was the first place to really emphasize beer service and higher-end beers. “And Quy was a big part of that. He was extremely knowledgeable and I’m sure one of the four or five most influential people as far as [those] in Richmond learning about different beers.”
Pham’s influence extended outside the Richmond region, Christina said. “He knew people in the beer industry from literally all over the world.”
“Part of the reason so many people knew Quy was that ... everybody who opened a brewery, [Mekong] would carry their beers before anybody else would,” Christina said. “And Quy was just influential because he knew a lot about beers. Any beer on tap he could tell you who made it and what it was like. He was spot-on.”
Pham was described as one of the most active youth leaders at the Don Bosco chapter of the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement, a nonprofit faith-based organization aimed at training youth to become well-rounded individuals within society and “ideal Christians,” according to a GoFundMe page set up to raise money for his family.