By Mark Trevelyan

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Four years after tasting Olympic victory, "Flying Dutchman" Epke Zonderland came crashing to earth on Tuesday when he lost his grip on the horizontal bar and tumbled flat on his face - yet somehow still managed to pick himself up.

Zonderland blamed faulty timing for the moment of cruel drama in the gymnastics arena that caused him to plunge to the mat, drawing gasps from the crowd. He lay there face downward for several seconds, his legs splayed out behind him.

Some spectators must have assumed that Zonderland, one of the favorites, would simply drop out of the competition. But after a few moments he stood up, relaunched his routine and performed it successfully, drawing one of the warmest ovations for any of the eight competitors.

"I timed it a little bit wrong. I almost got it and I thought I had it, that's why I tried to stick on the bar but I slipped away and I fell on my tummy," Zonderland said afterwards, still able to muster a smile for reporters.

Asked what had kept him going, he replied: "Maybe the thought that in theory it's possible to still get a medal if your routine will be perfect and the other guys fail. But in my head I actually knew it was done."

The 30-year-old, who finished seventh, said he had been oblivious to the reaction of the spectators.

"I had no idea. I was just thinking about my back because it hurt, of course. I had no time to think about anything else."

He drew a sympathetic reaction from his rivals, as Germany's Fabian Hambuechen took the gold medal, American Danell Leyva the silver and Britain's Nile Wilson bronze.

"I was hoping he was all right. It seemed to look quite painful when he landed on the mat. I was just hoping his back was OK," said Wilson, who performed immediately afterwards.

"He's a legend of the sport, reigning Olympic champion. I was watching four years ago what he was doing, back home. Today I was competing after him and wining a medal in the same final, so I'm in dreamland," he said.

Asked about the support from his peers, Zonderland was philosophical but matter-of-fact: "Yes they feel sorry for me, but that's gymnastics."

(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan, additional reporting by Pritha Sarkar; Editing by Andrew Hay)