Click photo to enlarge
Natalie Coughlin poses for a portrait at UC Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif., on Tuesday, March 27, 2012. Coughlin is an eleven time Olympic medal winner in swimming. (Jim Gensheimer/Staff)

LONDON -- Natalie Coughlin perked up the other day in the cafeteria at the Athletes Village when fellow Olympians started cheering.

"I thought it was Prince William or something," she said.

Nope. Just the Prince of Sprints: Usain Bolt of Jamaica.

It is one more moment Coughlin, 29, plans to remember on her Olympic journey that will be brief when she swims in the 400 freestyle relay Saturday -- her only event in the London Games.

With 11 medals, Coughlin is on the verge of tying fellow swimmers Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres as America's most decorated female Olympian of all time.

It would take a medal Saturday when swimming gets under way at the Aquatics Centre in Olympic Park. Coughlin has qualified to swim the preliminaries of the relay in the morning.

If she performs well, U.S. coach Teri McKeever of Cal could ask the East Bay swimmer to compete in the final later in the evening. And then, probably, that's it.

"I'm prepared for anything," Coughlin said. "I'm focusing on helping us get a lane for the night."

The U.S. women should reach the eight-team final, where they are expected to have an epic race against Australia and Holland, among others.

Coughlin, who has won a medal in every Olympic event she has entered, hopes to swim fast enough to earn a spot in the final.

"It's the Olympic Games; people are going to swim fast, people will swim out of their minds," she said.

After barely qualifying for the London Games, the former Cal great will perform whatever duty the team requires.

McKeever said there is a slight possibility Coughlin could be called upon for the medley relay. That would occur only if something happened to one of the team's standouts.

But unlike Michael Phelps, Coughlin isn't ready to turn Saturday into an emotional goodbye. She is entertaining thoughts of trying to go for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

"I think a lot of people assumed that I was done, and I never said that," Coughlin said. "The hardest part of being an athlete is the day-to-day training, and I enjoy that, so I might as well keep doing it."

In other words, if she is going to train anyway, why not train for the Rio de Janeiro Games?

"I learned a lot from what I did this year," Coughlin said. "I would love to go to Rio. We'll see, but let's get through this meet first."

London has a different feel from her previous two Olympic adventures. Coughlin plans to stay through the closing ceremony for the first time in her career. She has London tour apps downloaded in her phone to explore the city once the swimming portion ends next weekend.

Mostly, Coughlin has enjoyed hanging out with teammates more than any other time in her Olympic career. She said the swimmers have spent time gabbing from breakfast through lunch sometimes.

"Don't worry we're not eating the whole time," the well-known gourmet said.

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865 and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/elliottalmond.