02/13/2015 09:00 EST | Updated 04/15/2015 05:59 EDT

12-time Olympic medallist Coughlin to lead strong U.S. swim team at Pan Ams

TORONTO - American swimming star Natalie Coughlin plans to use the Pan American Games in Toronto as a stepping stone to what could be a historic Olympic performance.

The 12-time Olympic medallist will become the most decorated American female swimmer in history if she captures one more medal next year at the Rio Games.

She's part of a strong 36-member U.S. swim team that will compete at the Pan Am Games, part of her preparations for Brazil.

"The year before the Olympics is a very important one," Coughlin said on a conference call Thursday. "This will give me an indication of where I'm at in training, it's really the last big step before our Olympic trials, and then hopefully the Olympics.

"This is the last time we'll go through that full cycle before the Olympics, of a long training season into a racing season into a championship event. So for me, it's really good practice."

Coughlin plans to race the 50 and 100-metre freestyle events, plus relays, at the Pan Ams.

"So this will give me the opportunity to race a lot in a championship format and do so in Toronto where I hear the pool is fantastic," she said.

The 32-year-old won gold in the 100-metre backstroke in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics — her medal in 2008 in Beijing was part of an incredible six-medal performance at those Games.

Coughlin said winning a possible 13th medal "is somewhere in the back of my mind, but that’s not what drives me."

She won bronze in the 400 freestyle relay at the 2012 London Olympics, which left her unsatisfied.

"I wanted to do so much more," she said. "I didn't want to end my career on the note of London. I want to see this process through and end things on a good note."

Among her American teammates on the Pan Am Games team are Allison Schmitt, who won three gold medals — five in all — at the 2012 London Olympics, and Amanda Weir, an Olympic medallist in 2004 and 2012. Olympic gold medallists Cullen Jones and Matt McLean headline the U.S. men's team.

The U.S. has separate teams competing in the Pan Ams Games and the world championships a month later in Russia. Coughlin said she's not disappointed she was picked for the team bound for Toronto rather than Russia.

"I'm not looking at it as a negative," Coughlin said. "I'm looking at it as going to Canada. I get to go with a great roster of people who I know well, and I get to represent my country. It's an amazing competition where I'll get to swim a lot."