DETROIT -- Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard are the United States' best hope for an Olympic gold in pairs figure skating. In their publicity pictures, Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard look like Barbie and Ken. All teeth and hair. All sequins and no sweat.

The pictures, though, don't show the other side, the strained muscles and strained relationships that litter the path they have followed the past four years.

Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard are figure skaters -- the best figure skating pair in the United States at the moment, their country's best hope for a medal in their event at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Alberta.

They grew up in other places, Watson in Bloomington, Ind., Oppegard in Knoxville, Tenn. But a couple of years ago they moved to the Detroit area to take advantage of the coaching of Johnnie Johns and the choreography of Rita Lowery. Somewhere along the way Johns was dropped from the equation, and this week, as winter paid an early call outside, Watson, Oppegard and Lowery were on the ice at Birmingham (Mich.) Ice Arena plotting strategy.

They did not look like Barbie and Ken at all.

Watson, exhausted, rested her head on the boards ringing the rink. Oppegard looked with concern at the cut on his left palm -- the result of a mishap with an ice tray during a recent competition in Germany. Lowery coached and coaxed and cautioned them not to do anything that would risk injury.

Watson and Oppegard are four weeks from the United States Figure Skating Championships in Denver and two months from the Olympics. Watson has been there before, skating with Burt Lancon in Sarajevo in 1984. They finished sixth, then went their separate ways.

Oppegard wasn't skating seriously then. He had it in his mind that he was going to give up amateur skating and take a job with an ice show. He had been disappointed by his lack of progress and thought perhaps he would be better off on his own.

"I had never really received the break I felt I wanted, as far as a partner who would work and train enough to do the things I knew I could do," he said. "Then I got together with Jill and she was willing to work as hard as I was." And since they got together in 1985, that's what they've been doing.

It is a relationship that has most of marriage's drawbacks, with none of its benefits. There are times they cannot stand to look at each other, times they cannot agree, times they want to lash out, times when they wonder whether this is all worthwhile.

Sometimes they scream at each other; sometimes they turn their backs and walk away.

"It is," says Oppegard, 28, "a little of both. Sometimes it's little things like, who's better, and things like that . . . It's best to forget it. We try to talk away. Tensions get high, though . . . There are times we'd rather not come in, Jill especially, and there are times we don't. At times like that, it's best that we don't come in."

In team sports, it is no big deal to have a falling-out with a teammate. There are always other teammates willing to listen and sympathize. This is different. On the days Oppegard and Watson do not much like each other, they have no one to turn to but Lowery. She is their buffer. She is the one who must decide when to drive them and when to rest them, when to encourage them and when to chide them.

This has been their year, their very best.

In January they won the United States pairs championship for the second time, after losing it in 1986. In March they finished third to two Russian pairs in the World Figure Skating Championships. Last month they won a major competition in Germany.

All of that, though, was only a preliminary for what will happen when, fate willing, they skate into the spotlight in Calgary's Saddledome Feb. 16.

Watson has been skating since she was 12, Oppegard since he was 6, and all those years, all those hours of work and sweat have gone into making the skaters and the people who will look into the spotlight that night.

They have been so far apart they would not speak. They have been so close they have broken each other's noses in collisions in trying to perfect new routines.

Everyone is telling them how important Calgary will be. After all they have gone through, they know better.

"We try to make sure it's not as big in our minds as it is in the minds of some people around," Oppegard said.

"The experience itself is really satisfying," Watson said. "Representing the United States -- it's great to compete for your country."

Barbie and Ken have feelings.