A skier, a lawyer, a video producer, identical twins, a business analyst and a grinder for America3.

What do they have in common? Not much except a willingness to put their lives on hold for three years while they work toward one goal _ an Olympic gold medal as the U.S. women's eight rowing crew.

``When I first went out to try out for the national team, I didn't know anybody there,'' said Catriona Fallon of Burlingame, Calif. ``The nature of our sport is we don't get a lot of press, so people don't know who the big athletes are or who the strong athletes are.

``But everyone's gotten to know each other, especially this core of eight. I think it's rare that eight people like this stay together so long, and I think attributes to our success.''

Three years of togetherness and training has produced a crew that's the defending world champion and Olympic gold medal favorite.

Canada, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist, the Netherlands and Belarus will be the Americans' top challengers when the rowing events start July 20 at Lake Lanier, 50 miles northeast of Atlanta.

``We have to establish our position again this year,'' U.S. coach Hartmut Buschbacher said. ``The past is the past ... so it's a new game.''

U.S. women have only one Olympic gold medal, in 1984 in eights.

The 1996 crew, eight rowers with a coxswain calling the stroke, have spent the past three years together at USRowing's national training center in Chattanooga, Tenn. That translates to six hours a day, usually six days a week, with four hours spent inches apart in a boat nearly 63 feet long.

``We're like any family that's together for a long time,'' Fallon said. ``We know each other very, very well, and we know when someone's having a good day or a bad day or if someone just needs a little space.''

Room and personal time is a precious commodity for crew members who come from very different backgrounds.

Monica Tranel Michini grew up on a Montana ranch and is a lawyer. Californian Amy Fuller, one of three silver medalists in the 1992 games, returned to rowing after a stint as grinder for America3 during the America's Cup. Fallon's last job was as a business analyst for a health-care corporation.

Betsy and Mary McCagg are identical twins from Kirkland, Wash., and Anne Kakela is a skier from Steamboat Springs, Colo. Coxswain Yaz Farooq of Waupun, Wis., produces videos and television commercials.

Ages range from Jen Dore's 24 to Farooq's 30.

Since a crew must row a 2,000-meter course in about 7 minutes, with each stroke and slide in perfect rhythm, the drive for a medal has pulled them together.

``We're dancing on the water and exerting a lot of effort and strength, like great ballet dancers,'' Fallon said.

``You can just feel it, this energy,'' said Jen Dore of Kearney, N.J. ``It's just amazing. You don't get it every race, it's kind of rare.''

With friendships forged from disparate backgrounds, the crew even has tentative plans for a 1997 reunion at Tranel Michini's Montana ranch, once the Olympics are over.

However, their immediate plans are focused on the Olympics.

``There's a big sign saying how many days are left to the Olympic Games. At 500, we thought `How will we make it? Now it's about 40, and that's neat,'' Dore said.

Germany, rowing's traditional power, will have boats racing in each of the 14 events at Lake Lanier. The United States qualified boats in all but the lightweight men's double sculls.

The rowing events will be highlighted by Britain's Steven Redgrave and Matthew Pinser in the men's pairs. Redgrave will be rowing for his fourth gold medal in four Olympics.

U.S. rower John Riley, who will work as a consultant for NBC during the games, said the finals in the men's single sculls will be a horse race. Any of six rowers have a chance to win, but the favorites are Switzerland's Xeno Mueller, Derek Porter of Canada and Cyrus Beasley of the United States.

The German men's eight has won the world championship six of the past eight years, but the crew faces challenges from Canada, the 1992 winners, and the U.S. crew, world champions in 1994.

Maria Brandon of Sweden and Ekaterina Khodotovich of Belarus are the top challengers in women's single sculls, and Wendy Wiebe and Colleen Miller will try to add a gold medal to Canada's three straight world championships in the lightweight women's double sculls.

End advance